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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (effulgeo)

iThought iSaw A Shiny

It was iPad day in New Zealand so iWent to Dick Smith to consult with a techxspert. The man himself was there demonstrating away like mad. The crowd was iV people wide and iX people deep. Greasy fingers, toes and the occasional willy poked the display models and, in response, pretty icons zinged back and forth on smeary screens. There was a distinct odour of techno-lust in the atmosphere. Or possibly it was sweaty feet.

"iWant one," iSaid.

"WiFi by itself or WiFi and 3G network?" asked Dick Smith.

"What's the difference?"

"WiFi connects to the internet through a wireless router such as the one you absolutely must have at home if you want to get any use at all out of the iPad, and 3G connects to the internet through the telephone network at enormous cost to you which results in hugely obscene profits for the phone company."

"iThink that 3G is not for me," iSaid. "My WiFi router at home will suffice. Good job I have one, eh?"

"Indeed it is," said Dick Smith. " iAssume, being the well prepared nerd that you so obviously are, that you also have a PC running Windows?"

"Yes," iWhispered, ashamed. "Is that really necessary?"

"The iPad won't work without it," explained Dick Smith. "You need to run iTunes on a separate computer to set up and maintain your new gadget. The iPad is sexy, but it won't stand up alone. It needs the helping hand of a professional to bring out its most satisfying performance."

"Does iTunes work on Linux?"


"Not even if iOffer it a glass of Wine?"

"Especially not then. Steve Jobs has had a liver transplant and so he doesn't allow his minions to drink alcohol any more. He rules Apple with a rod of iRon, you know."

"What are his feelings about cider?" iAsked.

"Only with Rosie," said Dick Smith gnomically. "Now which iPad is to be yourPad?"

"The WiFi model, please."

"iWill see if iHave one in the storeroom," said Dick Smith. He vanished into the back room and had words with a harassed looking person hiding behind a pile of cardboard boxes. The man delved deep into his pile and emerged holding a significant box. Dick Smith took it from him and carried it in triumph to me. "Here it is!" heDeclared. " And now weCome to the sordid commercial part of our intimate relationship."

"iHave money," iTold him.

"That's just as well," heSaid, "because iWant lots of it."

"iAm fed up with this joke," iSaid.

"You should try selling these things for a living," heSaid. "iWas sick of the joke within five minutes of putting them on display. We've been open since sparrow fart; it is now the middle of the afternoon and iHaven't even had time to get myLunch yet!"

"Are they selling well?" iAsked.

"iSold nothing else all day," heSaid. "Nobody wants any of the other boring stuff in the shop. This is the only thing that people are interested in buying today."

iTook my cardboard box home and unpacked it. Rather to my surprise, iDiscovered that the battery in the iPad was fully charged, so iCould start using my new gadget right away. Just like me, Steve Jobs is a member of the instant gratification generation and little touches like this show that he truly understands his target market.

myPad is just as wonderful a toy as all the media articles say it is. It has its drawbacks, of course. It isn't a proper computer (unless you jailbreak it, but that invalidates the warranty). It is severely limited in what it is allowed to do and it point blank refuses to let you get inside it and fiddle around, which is very frustrating for geeks like me. However if you are willing to treat it as what it is rather than curse at it for not being what it isn't, it soon becomes clear that it is a magnificent gadget, full of possibilities and the source of endless fun.

Mainly there is the sheer child-like pleasure to be taken from the clever elegance of the design. Apple really do know how to make extraordinarily beautiful objects. Just holding it in your hands evokes a technological orgasm. And then you turn it on and start to stroke it and your cup of delight runneth over. Applications zoom up to fill the screen and you control them with suitable gestures of the fingers. Do you feel the urge to indulge in a larger font? Simply squeeze your finger and thumb together, touch them to the screen and then separate them. The image behaves like an elastic surface and stretches out beneath your fingertips, increasing the size of the letters as it grows. When you read an eBook and need to turn the page, just position your fingers exactly as you would with a real book and make the same gesture you would make to turn a paper page and the electronic page flips over just like a real one! I didn't read a word of the first eBook I loaded on to myPad. I just turned its pages all the way through to the end. And then I went back to the beginning and turned them all over again.

The only fly that I've found swimming in the soup of myPad is that stray cat hairs floating around the house tend to plonk themselves down on the screen in great abundance. Presumably there is a small static charge attracting them. I have found that it is important to resist the temptation to brush them off -- whatever application currently has the focus tends to go berserk at such random gropings, and who can blame it? I've tried blowing them away, with mixed success. The hairs do tend to detach themselves, but they are usually replaced with a thin layer of spit which is even less aesthetically pleasing. Once the power is safely turned off, I find myself constantly polishing the screen with the same sort of microfibre cloth I use for cleaning my glasses. It works quite well, actually...

But when you get right down to the actual nitty gritty of it, myPad is really only a device for showing off just how cool iAm in coffee shops and pubs. I'm absolutely certain that it will prove to be a geek babe-magnet. iCan easily imagine myself browsing the web with one finger and using my other fingers to titillate all the giggling, squirming geek groupies one by one by one (just like me, the iPad doesn't multitask).


Every so often, people ask me who my favourite SF author is. It's a hard question to answer -- I have lots of favourite authors -- but when the mood is on me I usually say Frederik Pohl. Kingsley Amis called him "the most consistently able writer science fiction, in the modern sense, has yet produced." and I cannot quarrel with that description. Pohl is 90 years old and still writing. He is reportedly putting the final spit and polish on a new novel to be published next year and he is working on updating his autobiography (The Way The Future Was, originally published in 1979). Snippets of the new autobiographical material have been published on his blog (Pohl is quick to adopt new technologies, both in his real and in his imaginary life) and because of his blog writings, he has been nominated for a Hugo award (2010) for Best Fan Writer.

So imagine how pleased I was to see Gateways, an anthology of stories and articles in tribute to Frederik Pohl edited by his wife Elizabeth Anne Hull.

The stories are uniformly wonderful. Very few of them are set in recognisably Pohl-ian scenarios, though Cory Doctorow has a lot of fun with Chicken Little, one of the more memorable "characters" from the Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants. Rather, the writers attempt to view the universe through Pohl-ian eyes, bringing Pohl-ian attitudes to bear in stories of their own. They succeed admirably. Every story is good; there isn't a weak one in the bunch, but my special favourites are a superb novella by David Brin called Shoresteading about a man who makes a precarious living by scavenging in the coastal waters that flooded Shanghai after global warming melted the polar ice caps and raised the sea level, and a clever little tale by Joe Haldeman called Sleeping Dogs in which a war veteran tries to regain the memories that were removed from his brain after his term of service expired. The results are not what he expected them to be...

Gateways is just superb, particularly if you admire Frederik Pohl as much as I do. Mind you, it is superb even you don't think much of him. The stories really are that good.

John Kessel is a writer whose works are not familiar to me -- but recently I stumbled across a time travel novel by him called Corrupting Dr. Nice. Since I'm a sucker for time travel tales, I decided to give it a go, and I'm very glad that I did. The story is fast and funny and one of the major characters is a cute dinosaur called Wilma. Who could resist that?

Mind you, it's also a very serious book, which culminates in the trial of the apostle Simon for terrorism.

In order to avoid the many problems of time paradoxes that so often bedevil novels of this kind, Kessel assumes that there are a large number of self-contained universes (actually 137(!) splitting off every second) which he refers to as "moment universes". Some of these universes have been settled and exploited from the future, others are as yet unvisited and unspoiled. Tourists travel freely among the universes, stay in specially constructed hotels, and visit the sights.

And so the stage is set for a satire on tourism and exploitation of the "primitive" natives by the "more sophisticated" people from the future. I use the quote marks because, of course, the natives are not unsophisticated and the tourists are often less advanced than they think themselves to be. It all depends on your point of view -- one man's sophistication is another man's naivety.

But that's only the surface joke. Beneath it is the much deeper exploration of what it actually means to exploit all these different versions of the past. How does it affect the people of the future when famous people from the past take all the sexy jobs? Imagine the depressions and neuroses! And how do the people of the past react to the foreigners who view them simply as resources to take advantage of?

Dr. Owen Vannice (the eponymous Dr. Nice) is the son of very rich parents. He's a socially inept wimp whose hobby is palaeontology. He spends most of his time in the Cretaceous, the only place and time where he feels comfortable (the Cretaceous is most notable for the absence of people and the presence of dinosaurs; Dr Nice likes those ratios). He has a bodyguard called Bill, who is an AI inside his head. Bill can take over his body when the situation requires it, though Dr Nice does not always appreciate this and he tries hard to keep Bill at a distance (Bill's aggressive attitudes often lead to trouble). Dr. Nice has a baby apatosaur who he calls Wilma. He is illegally taking her forward through time in small, easy jumps so as not to distress her too much.

Genevieve Faison and her father August are con artists. Dr Nice falls in with them in a tourist hotel in first century Jerusalem. To Genevieve and August he looks like the perfect mark; rich, naive and troubled. They scheme an elaborate scam designed to make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Part of the fun of a time travel novel is the making of snide jokes and observations about famous people. This book is no exception to that practice; as the story unfolds we make the acquaintance of Jesus (who has a talk show on TV), Lincoln, Mozart, Freud, Jung, and many others. There are lots of lovely one liners tossed off in passing (Richard Feynman is recruited as the drummer for Mozart's band). It's a great game to play and has the result of making the novel seem more substantial and lived in. I enjoyed it to bits and I can't imagine how John Kessel has escaped my notice until now.

The twenty seventh annual edition of Gardner Dozois massive collection of the year's best SF has just been published. I've been collecting these avidly for twenty five years (I'm missing the first and second anthology) and I know that some of you also look forward eagerly to its appearance, so I thought you would like to know that it is now available. It is pretty much accepted these days as the definitive anthology for showcasing the best stories of the year -- Gardner Dozois has impeccable taste (that's a euphemism that means he likes the same kind of stories that I do) and it has become a fixture of the SF scene.

I've not read it all yet; I've just dipped in to it -- it's very new and I only received it a few days ago. But as usual it seems to me that Dozois is leading from strength. There's a Nancy Kress story that has been nominated for a Hugo award this year (Act One) and an absolutely brilliant story from Jo Walton (Escape To Other Worlds With Science Fiction) which appears to be set in her Farthing universe. Also, casting my eye down the table of contents, I find that I recognise almost all the author names. There have been some years when Dozois' story choice has been so idiosyncratic that I've recognised almost none of the authors (not that it means much; idiosyncratic or not, Dozois still has impeccable taste). I'm sure that this twenty seventh collection will prove to be just as good as all the ones that have gone before.

Reginald Hill's last few novels have been a big disappointment. I was beginning to think that he was getting bored with Dalziel and Pascoe, his major protagonists. His new novel, The Woodcutter, reinforces this theory for it is a stand alone novel, nary a Dalziel nor a Pascoe in sight, and it is absolutely superb; the best thing from him in years.

It's a revenge novel loosely based on The Count Of Monte Cristo and there are quotations from the Dumas novel scattered throughout the book. If you are going to steal, steal from the best and make it obvious!

Sir Wilfred `Wolf' Hadda is a mysterious, magnetic man. A Cumbrian woodcutter's son, he ran away from home and disappeared for five years in his youth. When he returned, a rich man, he married the beautiful daughter of his titled, castle-dwelling neighbours. Wolf refuses to talk about his time in exile. He settles down to an exceedingly comfortable and prosperous life as a business man and financial entrepreneur in the city. He has a wife and daughter he adores. He is prepared to live happily ever afterwards. But then he is arrested, accused of fraud and paedophilia, and is involved in a horrific road accident. For a time it seems as if the accident will kill him, but he pulls through (albeit horribly scarred and mutilated). He is put on trial, found guilty and given a long jail sentence. His friends and family desert him and circumstances compel him to think that they may not have been as loyal as he once believed -- indeed, perhaps they conspired to send him away.

We see Wolf's story through many eyes. His own, of course, but also his psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo, his ex-wife (who divorced him and married his ex-best friend) and the mysterious and anti-charismatic JC (note the initials) who seems to have had a profound influence on the young Wilfred Hadda and who may have been involved in his initial rise from rags to riches.

Eventually Wolf is released from prison and the stage is set for him to take his revenge on those who harmed and hurt him so much. As everyone knows, revenge is a dish best served cold, and Wolf makes it positively icy.

This is a cruel book, full of twists and turns of both plot and character. It's a subtle and sometimes symbolic book (never has the pathetic fallacy worked so well; the Cumbrian countryside is a truly a character in its own right). And it tells a rich tale which is absolutely impossible to put down.

A Battle Won is the second novel by Sean Thomas Russell in an on-going series about Charles Hayden, a Master and Commander in the nineteenth century British navy. It has been hard to write anything original in this genre ever since Patrick O'Brian claimed it for his own. Indeed anyone who even attempts it is going to be compared (usually to his detriment) with O'Brian. Certainly this has been Russell's fate; and there is no doubt that he is, as yet, nowhere near as good a writer as O'Brian (that talented man). But, rather to my surprise, I'd certainly rate his stories as being at least as good as those of C. S. Forester who, until he was usurped by Patrick O'Brian, was the generally accepted leader in this field. In other words, Russell is definitely a writer to watch and it is not impossible to believe that O'Brian may be found sitting somewhat shakily on his throne in the not too distant future.

Andrew Williams is another new name to me. He writes historical novels and The Interrogator is set during the second world war. The interrogator of the title is a British navy lieutenant who has survived the sinking of his ship by a submarine attack. His new, shore based job requires him to interrogate German prisoners of war. His experiences at sea and the results of his interrogations convince him that the Germans have broken the British naval codes and are therefore easily able to seek out and sink the convoys and their guardian ships that are Britain's lifeline. Unfortunately nobody wants to listen to him...

Williams brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the time. The grim austerity of wartime Britain has never been portrayed more clearly. And, of course, the secret world of codes and ciphers is intrinsically interesting and a very fit subject for a novel (Andrew Williams is not the first novelist to have set a story in this era and, no doubt, he will not be the last). I was utterly enthralled from the first page to the last.

Having enjoyed The Interrogator so much, I was eager to read more by Andrew Williams, so I bought To Kill A Tsar, a novel set in Russia in 1879. It was a time of great unrest. Russia was alive with revolutionaries eager to overthrow the Tsar and implement a fairer, more socially just society (the twentieth century Bolsheviks who eventually ushered in the communist era were only the latest in a long line of Russian revolutionaries -- revolution is a grand old tradition in Eastern Europe).

The novel opens with a failed attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. Shaken, he sets his ruthless secret police on a quest to track down and eliminate the conspirators behind the assassination. The novel tells the story of this investigation from the point of view of both the secret police and the revolutionaries themselves.

Unfortunately, I quickly bogged down in the details. Russian society (particularly nineteenth century Russian society) seems rather odd to twenty first century eyes (I suspect it was rather odd to twentieth century eyes as well, particularly in the Western democracies) and I simply couldn't come to grips with the characters and the milieu in which they lived, and loved and plotted.

One very significant advantage to having an electronic gadget on which to read eBooks is that it becomes possible to read things that are long out of print as "proper" books and which have been almost unobtainable for lo! these many years. I have discovered quite a lot of Edgar Wallace books available for free download from Project Gutenberg and similar sites, so I grabbed them while the grabbing was good. Wallace is a writer who long ago fell out of fashion (though there was a time when he was one of the most popular writers in the whole of the world. Oh! How the mighty are fallen). These days, if he is remembered at all, he is remembered as the scriptwriter of the first King Kong movie. But there was much more to Edgar Wallace than that.

Bones is a fix-up novel constructed from a series of short stories. It's an offshoot of his Sanders Of The River series (a movie of that name, based on several Wallace stories, was made in 1935 and proved very popular) though Sanders himself only has a very small part in this book. Bones mostly concerns itself with the adventures of one Francis Augustus Tibbetts an army officer in British Colonial Africa. Wallace later used Tibbetts in several other loosely connected novels, following his fortunes through his military service and on into civilian life as a businessman. Tibbetts is more than a little dim and much of the amusement in Bones comes from stories of how he makes a complete and utter mess of implementing the administration of the colony to which he finds himself posted. In one particularly amusing story, he kills a sacred green crocodile and, in order to prevent anarchy and rebellion breaking out, must quickly find a replacement that will satisfy the tribe who worshipped it.

It's amazing what you can do with a common or garden dull, grey crocodile and a can of waterproof green paint when you put your mind to it.

The social and political aspects of the stories do not sit well with contemporary attitudes. We don't think much of literal empire building these days and it's terribly non-PC to treat the natives as second class citizens, and look down on their childish customs. However, to be fair, Wallace does not take this attitude to extremes and if you are willing to read a little bit between the lines of his stories, you can find a lot of respect hiding inside his colonialism. But it is best simply to read the stories as products of their own time without trying to bring your own prejudices to bear. If you read them that way, there is still much to be gained from them. Wallace was a clever writer and an ingenious plotter. I enjoyed Bones a lot.

Strangely the stories that make up this book are presented out of chronological sequence and many stories refer to events that the protagonists are familiar with (because the events happened in their past) but with which the reader is not yet familiar because the story in which they occur comes later in the book! This gives a certain jerky, disjointed effect to the whole reading experience. But it definitely keeps you on your toes!

It's all great fun; and at least one story invokes the supernatural, so if you really want to, you could even consider it to be an SF book. So there!

Elizabeth Anne Hull (Editor) Gateways Tor
John Kessel Corrupting Dr. Nice Tor
Gardner Dozois (Editor) The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty Seventh Annual Collection St Martins Press
Reginald Hill The Woodcutter Harper Collins
Sean Thomas Russell A Battle Won Michael Joseph
Andrew Williams The Interrogator John Murray
Andrew Williams To Kill A Tsar John Murray
Edgar Wallace Bones ????????
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