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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (centumvirus)

Alan And The Bureaucrats

It was time to re-register my car and so, being a creature of habit, I did what I do every year and I wandered down to the closest office of the Automobile Association.

I pushed open the door. There seemed to be a lot of resistance, which I found puzzling, but once I got through the door I quickly found the reason. The office was absolutely seething with people. I've never seen such a crowd concentrated in one small office before. Worried looking people dressed in AA uniforms scurried hither and yon behind the counter. There was a constant buzz of conversation, punctuated by the clack of keyboards, the clicking of mice and the occasional very rude word.

Three positions at the counter proclaimed that you could renew your drivers license at them, should you be so inclined. The crush of people around these was the thickest in the room. Another position claimed to deal with AA Membership Enquiries. The queue here was the shortest, for very long values of short of course. The final position at the counter had a sign which declared that it dealt with Vehicle Registration. Just what I needed. Unfortunately it also boasted a large, emphatic notice which said: Closed!

I joined the queue for AA Membership Enquiries, on the grounds that it only had eighty people in it and, after about an aeon and a half, I reached the counter and obtained the attention of the lady sitting behind it.

"Can I do this here?" I asked, flourishing my car re-registration documents.

"Of course you can," she said. "But you'll have to wait a few minutes. My shift has come to an end and I need to log off from the computer. When I've done that, my colleague will log on and then she'll be happy to deal with you."

"Righto," I said, having little choice in the matter. And then I watched in fascination as she logged off from her computer. I've never seen any process quite so complicated in my life before. Her eyes flicked around her screen, top to bottom, left to right, corner to corner. She typed furiously on her keyboard, pausing every so often to click on things with her mouse. I couldn't see the screen; I have no idea what prompts she was responding to, but it required huge concentration from her (the tip of her tongue was poking out of the side of her mouth; always a sure sign of deep thought). Eventually, after about five minutes of non-stop typing, she heaved a huge sigh of relief, sat back in her chair and smiled at me.

"My colleague will be with you soon," she said and left, hopefully to drink a reviving cup of coffee. I'm sure she needed it.

Her colleague sat down in the recently vacated chair. "I'll deal with you in a moment," she said, somewhat ominously. And then the whole process went in reverse as she logged on. Eventually, after typing in her entire autobiography from age 3 until 10.00am this morning, the system grudgingly decided that she really was who she claimed to be, and it allowed her access. She picked up my form, keyed in a few details and then asked, "How are you paying for this?"

I proffered an eftpos card.

"Thank you," she said. "Please swipe your card."

I swiped my card. Nothing happened.

"Other way round," she said.

I turned the card round and swiped again. Nothing happened.

"No," said the lady. "The other other way round."

I tried again. Nothing.

"You do it," I said, handing her the card. "All these machines swipe in different ways. I can never get them right."

She rotated my card through the fourth dimension, turned it sideways and swiped it.

"PIN Number?" demanded the tautologous machine. I supplied the number.

"Accepted," said the machine smugly, and I was several hundred dollars poorer, just like that.

"I'll just print out the docket for displaying on your windshield," said the lady, giving a delicate click with her mouse. A printer at the other end of the office graunched into life and the lady left to get my docket. She came back with a long face and an even longer docket.

"Something's gone wrong," she said gloomily, proffering the docket.

The printer was obviously horribly misaligned – the docket had printed across the perforations that separated two stationery items, thereby ruining them both. Furthermore, about half an inch of the left hand side of the docket was missing, the print heads having failed to make any contact with the form at all.

"Two for the price of one?" asked the lady hopefully.

"I don't think so," I said.

"I'll try again."

She went and opened the printer, poked something a bit half-heartedly, wiggled a wiggly bit and then came back and clicked the mouse. The printer sprang into life again, but the result was, if possible, even worse than before. Again it had used up two forms and most of the left hand side was still absent without leave. But this time the large black letters and numbers were missing several vital aspects and were almost illegible. They were also very smeary as if phantom fingers had brushed across the ink before it was dry.

"I think we'll have to put in a support call to IT," said the lady. "Can we phone you when it's fixed?"

"Well, not really," I said. "Isn't there any other alternative?"

"You could go to the Post Office," she said doubtfully. "Show them the receipt and explain what happened. I'm sure they'll print one out for you."

I heaved a sigh, but she dodged and it missed her and fell on to the floor, waiting for someone unwary to trip over it. I took my receipt and forced my way out through the struggling hordes (the number of people in the office seemed to have doubled since I'd arrived nearly two hours before).

The Post Office was about five minutes walk away. It was utterly deserted. Obviously today the AA office was the trendy place to be. The ladies behind the counter were knitting and gossiping to each other. I approached one of them, showed my receipt and explained what had happened. She started to laugh.

"Hey Alice," she said to the lady next to her, "the AA vehicle registration printer has broken down again."

"Again?" said Alice incredulously. "That's the third time this week. What do they do over there? Kick it every time they walk past?"

"I don't know," said my lady, "but I think we'd better brace ourselves for a mad rush as they send everybody over here. Gird your knitting, girls. We might be busy soon."

She glanced cursorily at my receipt. "I'll just log on," she said. "We've been very quiet today and I haven't logged on yet."

Logging on took less than ten seconds. Obviously the Post Office system had a much less rigorous authentication mechanism than the corresponding AA system. Then the lady keyed in a code from my receipt, wandered over to the printer in the corner and came back with a perfectly printed docket. The whole exercise took less than a minute from woe to go.

"There you are, dear," she said.

"Thank you," I said. "Next year I think I'll cut out the middle man and come straight here."

"We'll see you then," said the lady and she went back to her knitting.

Elizabeth Peters is back with her first new Amelia Peabody novel in four years. A River In The Sky is set in 1910. The British Secret Service have persuaded Amelia and Emerson to visit Palestine, where an English adventurer, George Morley, is planning to excavate the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He is searching for the Ark of the Covenant, much to Emerson's loudly expressed disgust. The British suspect that Morley is a German spy. Emerson and Amelia are unconvinced. Meanwhile, in a separate adventure, Amelia's son Ramses comes into possession of important information from an encounter with a British secret agent who is travelling in the entourage of a rather mysterious expedition in Samaria. He attempts to join his parents and pass the information on, but his attempts are foiled and he is captured.

There isn't much of a plot, to be honest. The book is really a short story padded out to novel length with red herrings and action sequences. The joy of the book comes from meeting all the old familiar characters again and seeing them go through all their old familiar paces. In other words, this is one that will appeal only to the fans.

In the words of the author himself, David Langford's Different Kinds Of Darkness should be thought of as the rest of Langford rather than the best of Langford. It's a collection of short stories that Langford has penned over the years. He's never been a prolific fiction writer (his strengths lie in other areas) and so this is rather a slim volume, but the standard is uniformly high. It's also the only place, as far as I know, where you can find, gathered together in one place, all the stories he wrote about the strange optical illusions that cause the operating system of the human brain to crash. He won a Hugo for one of the stories and he probably should have won one for the rest of them as well.

Strangely, the famous Langford sense of humour is absent from many of the stories (particularly the earlier ones). Not surprisingly, these are the weakest stories in the collection. One of them (Training) later became the first chapter of his deeply unfunny (and really rather dull and forgettable) novel The Space Eater.

But the good far outweighs the bad. Many of these stories may be minor Langford, but they are nonetheless Langford and that has to make it worthwhile.

Enchanted Glass is a brilliant new novel by Diana Wynne Jones. I don't know how many books she's written but all of them are different and all of them are superb. Enchanted Glass is no exception.

Andrew Hope's grandfather dies at a ripe old age (as magicians tend to do). Unfortunately he dies with his affairs in a bit of a mess and although Andrew is his heir, there is much about his grandfather's field-of-care that he hasn't been told or which he has forgotten. He does remember the very strong minded staff who look after his grandfather's house, particularly the gardener who expresses his displeasure with Andrew by leaving boxes of very large vegetables in the kitchen. Andrew has to dispose of these by putting them on the roof of the shed. They are always gone by the morning, but Andrew doesn't remember who comes to eat them in the night.

While he is puzzling this out, a young boy called Aidan Gain turns up at the house. He has escaped from an orphanage and is in need of protection. Andrew agrees to help Aidan, though he isn't sure why.

Together Andrew and Aidan help each other to discover and develop their magical abilities and the powers of the house itself. They manage to see off several magical attack by creatures who don't use iron. These creatures seem to be controlled by the sinister Mr Brown who is busy building barbed wire barricades throughout Andrew's field-of-care, to which Andrew takes great exception.

It soon becomes clear that, while all of these evil creatures know who Aidan is, they are all incapable of pronouncing his name. They tend to call him Adrian, and several other variations. Naturally Aidan doesn't like having his name mangled like this (and speaking as someone whose own surname is consistently mispronounced and misspelled I fully sympathise), but he has to just grin and bear it – and besides, it's a useful clue as to who can be trusted and who can not.

As with all of Diana Wynne Jones books, Enchanted Glass is full to overflowing with utterly delightful inventions and conceits and her trademark delicious humour. There's a magic wallet, a loyal were-dog and lots of people whose surname is Stock but who aren't related to each other. Andrew grows into his inheritance and there's a happy ending. What more could anyone want?

Christopher Moore's hysterically funny new novel Bite Me is subtitled A Love Story. It is a sequel to his earlier You Suck which itself is a sequel to Blood Sucking Fiends, both of which were also love stories. Although the events of the earlier novels are summarised in the first chapter of the new one, you really should read the earlier books before tackling this instalment otherwise you will miss far too many important nuances.

When last we saw Tommy and Jody, their loyal nosferatu wannabe Abby had imprisoned them in a brass statue of Rodin's The Kiss, symbolising their eternal romance. Chet, the huge, shaved cat was just coming into his vampire powers and Elijah had been carried off to parts unknown by his vampire hench things.

And now San Francisco is being stalked by vampire cats which have all been turned by Chet, who is still huge, but no longer shaved. Only Abby Normal, emergency backup mistress of the Greater Bay Area and her manga-haired love monkey Foo Dog stand between the ravenous monsters and a bloody massacre of the general public. Foo Dog, otherwise known as Steve, is (status wise) brilliantly PhD. He speaks geek fluently. He has invented the first new vampire destroying weapon in several hundred years. Begone crucifix and garlic! Modern vampire hunters wear leather jackets fitted with light emitting diodes that blast ultra-violet radiation over the creatures of the night, frying them where they stand. Furthermore, in between lots of raw animal sex with Abby, he has been studying induced vampirism in rats and has learned how to reverse the process. Abby is not sure she approves of this, lusting as she does for the awesome dark powers that she hopes will soon be hers.

Tommy and Jody are released from their statue, and battle is joined. The Emperor of San Francisco joins in the fray, as do the frozen-turkey bowlers from the supermarket. Elija's hench-things sail back into San Francisco intent on destroying all the vampires spawned by Elija. Things get complicated, and the more complicated they get, the funnier they get. Christopher Moore has lost none of laughter inducing skill. I loved it.

The Windup Girl by the unfortunately named Paolo Bacigalupi is set in Thailand in a bleak and very grim future. The oil has run out, the sea levels are rising, genetic mutation has run out of control and far too many plants and animals are now extinct. Technology, such as it is, is based round mechanical and animal energy sources. (I rather enjoyed the treadmill powered computers).

There are a large number of characters in this dark tale – perhaps too many. It is sometimes hard to know who to sympathise with, particularly since so many of them are so very unlikeable. Captain Jaidee Rojjanasukchai of the Thai Environment Ministry is one of the few honest men left in the Kingdom. Rather than taking bribes from the foreigners who are using the ramshackle structure of the country to their own advantage, he fights desperately to protect the country from their malign influence. And he is not afraid to bend the rules quite a lot in pursuit of his goal. He's an "end justifies the means" person. Factory manager Anderson Lake is covertly searching for new biological mutations which may be of commercial interest to his Western agribusiness employers. The Chinese immigrant Tan Hock Seng is one of Anderson Lake's employees. He is the only member of his family to survive a pogrom in Malaysia. He lives by his wits, constantly undermining Anderson Lake while superficially seeming to help him. Emiko is the windup girl of the title. She is a despised but impossibly sexy product of Japanese genetic engineering. She works in a brothel. While plying her trade, she comes across important information that will trigger a civil war.

The society portrayed in this book is unceasingly depressing and cynical. Corruption, betrayal, and despair are the norm, and the more human emotions such as hope and love are regarded as weaknesses to be exploited. It's a dark and ultimately hopeless tale and while it is magnificently written, with brilliantly depicted characters, and settings that are so real that you can smell them, I cannot honestly say that I enjoyed it. It's just a bit too gloomy and a bit too grim.

Robert Charles Wilson's novel Julian Comstock is also set in a future where the oil has run out and society is gradually recovering from a period of chaos and turmoil. In the 22nd century, the political organisation of America now includes most of the continent, though European military forces are fighting fiercely to claim what used to be Canada for themselves. The main motivation for this war is control of the North West Passage which global warming has opened up.

America is under the control of a hereditary presidency. The current president is the tyrannical Deklan Comstock whose nephew Julian is the eponymous hero of the book. Julian is a free-thinker whose opinions, should they become widely known, would get him into serious (possibly fatal) trouble with the establishment. He agrees with the doctrine proposed by the apostate Charles Darwin and is very sceptical about the received religious truths that dominate the ruling classes (Julian's own interpretations of common biblical myths are scattered through the book and they are very entertaining, and not a little subversive).

He is forced to flee from the pursuing forces of his uncle. Julian, his friend Adam (the actual narrator of the novel) and his mentor and guardian Sam Godwin elude the pursuit and end up in the army where they soon find themselves fighting in the front line against the Europeans. Julian returns from the war as a military hero. If anything, he is now more dangerous to Deklan than he was before, but his popularity with the people means that Deklan now has to be rather more subtle in his efforts to remove the danger that Julian represents. He promotes Julian to General and sends him off on an impossible military mission that seems foredoomed to fail...

This novel is so many things on so many levels that the sum of its parts is almost impossible to contain between a single pair of covers. Consequently it deserves (and will easily bear) many re-readings. Stylistically it is a nineteenth century novel of manners, but it is also a rousing Boy's Own adventure tale, a delicate and touching love story, and a diatribe about conservative politics and dogmatic religion and their deleterious effect on society. It can also be read as a delicious satire about the underpinnings of the current state of 21st century American paranoia. At one and the same time the novel is a plausible warning about the consequences of contemporary attitudes, and also a suggestion as to what might be done to ameliorate them.

The skill with which Wilson juggles all these balls and never drops a single one is simply breathtaking. This is a stunningly brilliant and important novel. I seriously doubt that I will read a better book than this for a very long time, if at all. Perhaps that's hyperbole on my part, but this magnificent book certainly deserves it.

I needed a new passport so I went to the Department Of Internal Affairs which is on the third floor of a building with a lift that takes nearly twenty minutes to arrive when summoned. Perhaps it was having a tea break.

A dark brown man wearing a dark brown suit sat behind a dark brown desk with a dark brown notice on it that said: Enquiries.

"Can I help you sir?" he Enquired in a dark brown voice.

"I need to renew my passport," I explained.

"Here." He handed me a dark brown form. "Fill this in and bring it back with two photographs. Remember not to smile when you have the picture taken."

I followed his instructions to the letter and returned a few days later with my completed form. I was told to wait for my name to be called. I sat down and watched various people being interrogated by bureaucrats. This involved much enthusiastic checking of forms and the pounding of the forms to death with rubber stamps. Eventually the customers slunk away, much subdued. Finally my name was called and I took my form up to the window. The nice lady smiled.

"Hello," she said. "How can I help you?"

I presented my form and photographs and she scrutinised them with a dark brown scroot. She checked a couple of answers with me and then picked up the largest stamp I've ever seen, inked it carefully and thumped it fiercely on the front of the form. When she removed the stamp, I could see the large friendly letters "Routine" all across my paperwork and I felt a great sense of relief. There are two things that guarantee severe problems in your immediate future. One is to hear your doctor say, "Hmm. I've never seen one of those before." and the other is to have a civil servant catch you out in any non-routine exercise...

While the lady had been checking my form, I couldn't help overhearing some of the conversation that was happening one window down from mine.

"I accidentally ticked the wrong box on the form," said a man. "And now he has three surnames and no first names. Can we fix that please? He's being teased about it at school."

"Oh dear," said the clerk. "Well, you could change his name by deed poll. It takes a long time and it costs a lot of money."

"But it was an accident. I ticked the wrong box by mistake. Can't we just rearrange the information in your records?" The man was almost crying with frustration.

"Oh, it's not as simple as that," said the clerk. And then she uttered the dreaded words, "It's not routine."

"He's got three surnames," wailed the man. "Nobody has three surnames. Can't you tell it was just an honest mistake?"

I left him to his dilemma and went home to await my new passport.

Several days later it arrived. It's a deep sexy black document with half a fern outlined down one side. When you open it up, you find a very thick page stuffed full of biometric magic. Written on this page in stern dark brown letters is a dire warning to Customs and Immigration officials not to stamp visas on it. Presumably dreadful penalties will be imposed on them should they happen to chip the chip embedded in this page's folds.

According to the book of words that came with the passport, there is a radio frequency ID (RFID) chip lurking in there. Consequently, whenever I decide to travel to Australia, as soon as I walk into the airport, all the machines will immediately say, "Hello, Alan – we've been waiting for you. Come in, come in." and I will be ushered past glaring officials who are powerless to interfere. Protected by the subtle power of biometrics, I will stroll off again at the other end with nobody to say me nay.

I really can't wait to try it out.

In order to grant me this magical travel ability, the New Zealand Government has doubled the price of the passport and halved its lifetime. I will have to fill in another dark brown form in only five short years.


Elizabeth Peters A River In The Sky Morrow
David Langford Different Kinds Of Darkness Cosmos Books
Diana Wynne Jones Enchanted Glass Harper Collins
Christopher Moore Bite Me Morrow
Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl Night Shade Books
Robert Charles Wilson Julian Comstock Tor
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