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wot I red on my hols by alan robson and kathleen bergner (Scunthorpithecanthropus)

Telephones and Towns

I picked up the telephone and was greeted with total silence; not even the distant conch-shell sound of the sea. When the telephone is out of order, the phone book informed me, simply ring Faults and report it.

Normally such a Wittgensteinian oxymoron would leave me quivering (how can you phone when the phone is out of order), but fortunately today’s technology cuts such Gordion knots with ease. I reached for my yuppiephone.

Ring, ring.

"Hello, Faults, how can I help you?"

I gave the details and the nice man clattered on a keyboard for a while. There was a long silence.

"Yes," he said cheerfully. "There’s definitely a Fault. I’ll send an engineer round."

An engineer duly appeared and vanished into a junction box halfway down the road. Soon he emerged in triumph. "I found a broken wire!" he announced ringingly, "but there is still an abnormally high resistance on the line. I need to check your sockets."

Who could resist such flattery? I let him into the house, and he checked my sockets. I’ve got three, and he examined them all closely.

The one upstairs contained no surprises other than slightly corroded terminals. It was soon replaced. However the one in the bedroom proved to contain more than its fair share of wires, several of which had a piece of paper sellotaped to them. Something was scribbled on the paper and the engineer frowned at it.

"Do you actually use the phone in the garage?" he asked.

"?" I said.

"These wires," he explained, pointing at the piece of paper. "They go through to the phone in the garage. We really ought to put in a separate socket if you want to use it – it isn’t a good idea to wire it into the same socket as the bedroom phone."

"I haven’t got a garage," I told him. "I’ve never had a garage. This house has been garageless since 1937, when it was built."

"Odd," he mused, and cut the wires off and threw them away, solving the problem in a snip. I wonder what was in the mind of the person who originally connected that socket? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. I’m also quite curious as to what exactly is at the other end of those mysterious wires. Perhaps they lead into another dimension (one where I actually do have a garage phone). Had the engineer connected them up, perhaps I could have made trans-dimensional phone calls to my doppelganger. Perhaps I read too much science fiction.

The socket in the hall proved to be the most mysterious of all. "I wonder what those are?" mused the engineer as he poked at a tangle of wires that he didn’t seem to know what to do with. "I’ve never seen cables like that before. Doesn’t look like anything to do with the phone."

I professed myself equally puzzled, but what do I know? They looked just like all the other wires to me. The engineer scratched his head. "Looks like bell wire," he mused.

Pennies dropped with a sudden clatter. "Come with me," I said and I took him into the back of the house, through the kitchen and showed him a bell screwed to the wall. "When I first moved in, this rang with the phone, presumably so that you could hear it all through the house – you tend not to hear the phone ringing when you are at the other end of nowhere. But about five years ago, it just stopped ringing. I assumed it was clogged up with grease from the kitchen and had given up the ghost. I’d forgotten all about it."

"Aha!" he said triumphantly. "That explains the odd resistance I found in the junction box outside." He descended into a stupor for a while and then made magic spells with resistors and capacitors. "Let’s try now."

He dialled a magic number. The bell in the back of the house rang. The phone in the hall rang, and so did the phone in the bedroom. The phone upstairs remained stubbornly silent. Four bells, only three ringing. Damn.

More magic games with resistors. All three sockets were replaced. Wires were poked, heads were scratched, swear words were sworn.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

Three bells out of four, but a different three this time. Progress of a sort, I suppose. The sequence was repeated. No matter what he did, only three bells rang, but we managed to get every permutation of three out of four. Four out of four we just couldn’t manage. The engineer descended into a brown study. This was an insult to his engineering virility, and he wasn’t going to let it defeat him. He’d never be able to hold his head up in public. Imagine what the lads would say!

All three sockets were replaced again, and different grades of resistors installed. At last, success!! Four out of four!

"I’m going now." Wisely he knew when enough was enough; quit while you are ahead.

So now, for the first time in five years, I have all four bells again. Whether or not I still have an anomalous resistance I have no idea. But I do know that ever since the magic man played with my sockets I have a much faster and much more reliable connection to the internet.

Q, as they say, ED.

The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of is a series of essays (many originally published in Interzone) in which yet again someone who thinks he knows all about SF just because he makes a living by writing it, attempts to define the field and put it in its literary place. Disch’s viewpoint is an idiosyncratic one (as might be expected from one of the re-definitional new wave revolutionaries of the 1960s) but, except when ripping a hapless Whitley Strieber to shreds, he comes across mainly as an apologist seeking intellectual and philosophical justification. Such post priori arguments in defence of a career move feel a little casuistic (methinks the lady doth protest too much) and I was not left enlightened. But there’s some nice gossip along the way…

Harry Turtledove originally made his name as a fantasy writer but in recent years has built a new reputation as the master of alternate history. In a whole slew of novels (some of them standing alone, some of them part of a series) he has examined the effects of the South winning the American Civil War, the British winning the War of Independence, and alien invasions in the midst of World War II. It has proved to be a winning formula, and I for one have devoured these books with gusto. Generally he takes a large cast of characters and follows them through the upheavals. There is great drama and much historical research cunningly disguised in the story as he paints on a huge canvas that as often as not involves the whole world. Much of the joy of these books comes from the detailed working out of the politics and sociology involved in the diplomatic interactions between the warring nations (America, Britain, France, Germany, Russia…) and the historical characters who are seen in new situations (Custer as a World War I General, Abraham Lincoln in disgrace after he surrenders to the South).

Now, with Into The Darkness, Turtledove has tried to meld this very successful formula with the fantasy genre in which he first made his reputation and it simply doesn’t work.

One of the reasons that his real alternative histories have worked so well is because of the sense of semi-familiarity that these slightly skew-whiff situations and people involves. Like it or not, there is a cultural baggage attached to our perceptions of the Soviet Union or the Confederacy. We can identify with Jeb Stuart or General Custer. In other words the situations within which the "ordinary" people live out their lives in the books are to an extent pre-defined by our preconceptions, by our knowledge of how it really was. And so we play Turtledove’s game and enjoy ourselves immensely while we do. There is a frisson of recognition.

You just can’t do that with fantasy. In a completely imaginary world the politics are (by definition) obscure to the reader, the personalities even more so, for we have never met them before. They carry no associations or cultural baggage in our minds, so why should we care about them? The writer has to work extra hard in such a cultural vacuum.

When you paint on such a large scale you can’t take care of the details, you have to leave them to take care of themselves. Broad brush strokes only work properly when the audience already know the shapes and can persuade themselves that yes, the big blobs really do make a picture (think of Rolf Harris going splat, splat, splat and telling you it’s a kangaroo sitting under a tree, and my goodness me, it IS!).

But Turtledove’s novel is just blobs, and I was so distanced from it as a result that I could even see the authorial wheels going round as he put in a blob over here to counterbalance the one over there. It is a sure sign that the novel is failing when the reader concentrates on structure and technique instead of story. Those things should be transparent.

The novel was an interesting experiment but ultimately it failed for me. Sequels are promised. I won’t be searching them out.

The authors of The Year 1000 set themselves the task of describing everyday life a thousand years ago. Obviously in one sense they are merely cashing in on the current millennial madness, but I’m not sure that matters for they tell a fascinating tale.

The book is subtitled "What life was like at the turn of the first millennium – An Englishman’s World". So we have only a very small picture of the world of 1000 AD (I’d love to see some companion volumes detailing daily life in other parts of the world, in other cultures). A typical lifetime is described over the course of a year (twelve chapters, one for each month). It is based around a contemporary document, the Julius Work Calendar which has a similar structure and which details the tasks (mainly agricultural) that belong to each month. Lacey and Danzigger put these into a cultural perspective; social and sometimes political details are emphasised.

It is utterly fascinating. The people worked hard (most were dead before their fiftieth year – manual labour took its toll) and they played hard; sex and drugs and rock and roll (sort of). Anyone want to turn on to rye bread contaminated with ergot? Now there’s a great hallucinogen! Despite the myths, life may have been short, but it wasn't nasty and brutish.

Gahan Wilson is a cartoonist (a very bizarre cartoonist with an imagination almost as sick as Gary Larsen’s). He writes the occasional short story as well and in The Cleft he puts together thirty year’s worth of his literary tinkerings (he is not hugely prolific). Many of the stories depend for their effect on an O. Henry twist in the tail which makes them difficult to re-read (at least as long as you remember the ending) but some are genuinely chilling. One of them (with a title that isn’t a word, it’s just an amorphous shape, so I can’t write it down) was originally published in Harlan Ellison’s innovative and definitive Dangerous Visions anthology. Unlike many of the those "dangerous" stories, it has not dated at all and still packs just as much of a punch as it ever did (and it is funny to boot). The book is a minor collection by a minor writer. There isn’t anything of significance here. But it’s fun.

As regular readers of this column will know, Jonathan Carroll is one of my favourite novelists. His stories are a curious blend of magic, mysticism, fairy tale and fable and are quite unlike anything else at all. He is a unique voice in a field that is far too crowded with things that are all exactly the same. The Marriage of Sticks is one of his very best.

Miranda Romanac returns to a school reunion. She is a little dubious – will James Stillman, the great love of her teenage years, be there? But he isn’t, and to her great distress she learns that he is dead, killed in a car crash several years before.

Returning to everyday life in New York, Miranda begins an affair with Hugh, an artist, a musician, a collector. Through him she meets Frances Hatch, an old lady who in the 1920s was the mistress of many of the great artists of the time. The love of her life was Shumda, a Romanian magician. There was a scandal in Vienna. A young girl was killed.

Miranda sees James Stillman waving to her from across the street. She hears all the people in the apartment house, a cacophony of noise. She learns to collect memorable sticks. She has lessons in life from the living and the dead. There are secrets within secrets, she must learn who she is (and why) and there is a sacrifice to be made. Frances made it once, for Shumda. Can Miranda do it? For Hugh?

The plot (in detail at least) is slight and in the hands of a lesser artist it would be trite. But Carroll practices high art. This is one to make you think as well as weep. There is transcendence in the dénouement. It’s shivery.

In The Far Shore of Time, Frederik Pohl completes the trilogy he’s been working on over the last few years. It began with great promise, but it ends with disappointment for he completely avoids the conclusions of the theme he introduced in the first volume and the lack of resolution diminishes the tale.

In the first book he introduced an alien race obsessed with the Eschaton; that space-time event at the end of the universe where (according to some contemporary physicists) the universe will collapse in on itself and everyone who has ever lived will live again. Strangely, there is evidence (of a sort) for the Eschaton and there is a possibility that it is rather more than simply judgement day writ large. As a science fictional theme it cries out to be explored (if only for the theological implications, never mind the physical ones). There were blatant hints in the first book that this was where the series was heading.

However Pohl avoids it completely and the story simply turns into a very routine tale of interstellar warfare between several alien races and the people of Earth. It is full of wit and invention (this IS Frederik Pohl after all) but I suspect that Pohl simply found the theme too large for him (a very rare failure of imagination; he’s never let the big ones defeat him in the past) and ultimately it feels anti-climactic.

In November 1997, Brian Aldiss’ wife Margaret died of pancreatic cancer. When the Feast is Finished tells the tale of her last year of life. There are extracts from the diaries they both kept at the time. The mood is sombre and despairing of course. The knowledge of death is harrowing to live with for both partners (I’m not really sure who had it worse). But there is also wonder and love here. Brian loved Margaret. These are simple words for complex emotions, but the story of his love shines like a beacon all through it and even in the darkest times there were jokes to share. You can’t help but be profoundly moved. Love and death. That’s what art is about, isn’t it? Perhaps it is crass to say that Aldiss lived his art, but I don’t mean it that way. I think only an artist of his stature can properly communicate the way it feels and what it all means. And that is why the book is so profoundly moving and inspiring at one and the same time.

Lord Prestimion continues the story begun in Sorcerers of Majipoor. The civil war is at an end. Prestimion has defeated Korsivar and become Coronal. But the war was so devastating, so ruinous, that Prestimion summons the sorcerers and requires them to cast a spell to obliterate all memory of the war. Only he and two close friends remember that it ever happened (even the sorcerers forget, victims of their own spells, a nice paradox). However he cannot obliterate the physical scars left by the war and he cannot bring the dead back to life. How are the people to explain the devastation they see all around them? How are they to explain the deaths of their loved ones? These contradictions between memory and reality lead to vast psychoses and the structure of society itself starts to unravel as the people begin to break under the strain.

In other words, its just another routine novel, better than most because it is by Silverberg and he is never less than professional, but it isn’t anything special; just candyfloss.

The new Chris Ryan thriller The Tenth Victim, owes absolutely nothing to the similarly titled novel by Robert Sheckley, indeed I doubt that Ryan even knows that Sheckley exists. I doubt he cares either, and why should he? It’s quite irrelevant and I have no idea why I even bothered mentioning it.

The novel itself sees Geordie and his SAS mates in Africa training one of the tinpot armies so that it stands a (small) chance of surviving the civil war currently tearing the country in half. Against their better judgement the team are dragged into active combat, and from there on it all goes down hill. Soon they are on the run, pursued by both the rebels and the government troops. Geordie’s mate Whinger dies a terrible death and Geordie becomes slightly unhinged (there are those who might argue that he always was, given his actions in earlier books). There is murder, mayhem and madness. It’s a jolly good read, with lots of blood and guts (particularly guts) and on its own level it’s damn good – but it doesn’t live up to the promise of Ryan’s earlier novel The Kremlin Device. It’s just a melodrama, not a novel.

Do you remember those "choose your own adventure" books that infested the shelves about ten years ago? The ones where page 1 presented you with an ethical dilemma and you had to make a choice about how it might be solved. Depending on which choice you made, you had to jump to a given page in the book and continue the story from there, making more choices as you progressed. Theoretically at least, these books contained several stories for the direction of the plot depended on your choices and it was possible to explore the ramifications of each of them in turn. Fortunately the books were usually very thin, so the ramifications were few and you could get them out of the way quite quickly without getting too bored or too frustrated.

Well now Kim Newman has produced a 488 page monster of a book structured on just those lines. You can control the life of Keith Marion from just after his birth up until his death (which sometimes comes quite quickly if you make the wrong decisions, but never mind you can always go back and try again).

I soon got fed up. I needed about a dozen bookmarks to try and keep track of the decision points and it quickly became tedious. It was a dull and generally trite experience even with the shorter books of ten years ago. It is monumentally dull and monumentally trite in this huge one. Hypertext and novels just don’t hack it on the printed page – the mechanics of it always defeats you. I really don’t know why Newman bothered.

Arthur C. Clarke’s oddly titled new book Greetings, Carbon Based Bipeds is a huge (in every sense of the word) collection of essays spanning the decades from 1934 to 1988. Many have been published before, of course, though in collections now long out of print (and unlikely ever to be reprinted) and so those coming late to Clarke will find this book a treat indeed. I found much of the material familiar (I have most of those older collections) but nevertheless it was a joy to welcome new friends again, and to meet new ones, and as ever I loved to wallow in the lushness and the enormous wit of the Clarkean prose style. The man is a master of the language and he uses it to perfection.

All the familiar obsessions are here. The exploration of space (inextricably linked to the continuing existence of humanity – you can’t have one without the other, simple physics says so), the exploration of the sea (the essays about diving off the Ceylonese coast and the Great Barrier Reef are positively lyrical), 2001, 3001 (his latest last novel, though this time, sadly, he may be right), science fiction, dogs, writing, film making, fun.

In case you haven’t worked it out yet - it’s a great book.

Resurrection Day is an alternate history novel by a writer who is new to me. The premise is that the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s led to a (short lived) nuclear war between America and Soviet Russia. In this novel, Kruschev did not back down and remove the missiles as he did in our world, but instead pushed America (and John Kennedy) to the brink, and over it.

The novel is set ten years after those events. America is reduced to a banana republic state. Soviet Russia has ceased to exist, bombed out of existence entirely. What is left of the world is firmly controlled by the UN and Britain is a large voice in its councils – the loss of America and Russia as superpowers has left a vacuum at the top which Britain has filled and a second British Empire is starting to look likely.

Carl Landry is a reporter, a veteran of those war time days. He had been an advisor in Vietnam when it all came apart, so he had no direct role in the war itself. But he was heavily involved in the "pacification" of post-war America. Now he works for a newspaper in Boston and tries to keep his conscience quiet. An old man is killed. Carl writes the story but it never gets printed – the army censors spike it, claiming it is against the national interest. What possible effect could an old man from a Boston slum have on what is left of the national interest? As Carl investigates, a complicated plot begins to unravel.

All the best alternate history stories tell us interesting things about our own world. There is the attraction of what might have been, of course, but also the historical analysis can often throw light on the reasons why things happened the way they did (in real life as well as in the book) and on the personalities involved as well. Resurrection Day is one of the best, particularly for those of us who remember those dark times. Whoever Brendan DuBois is, I am sure that he will go far, and I await his next novel eagerly.

Iain Banks has a genius for writing books in which virtually nothing happens, but you keep on reading anyway because it is so interesting. The Business is told from the point of view of Kate Telman, a senior executive in the eponymous business (which has been in existence since the Roman Empire, and the things it has in its archives, you wouldn’t believe – it actually owned the Empire for 66 days, but it was a bad investment). The book concerns political machinations (domestic politics – the Business is too large to be anything else) and sociological speculation. It isn’t by Iain M. Banks and so it isn’t officially SF, but you’d never know if I hadn’t told you. It sort of meanders through contemporary times (minor incidents later prove to be major ones) but essentially it is an inner monologue by Kate. Where does she fit in? (Identity crises may be old fashioned but it doesn’t make them any less real). Love and life and politics and business, there isn’t a lot of difference when you move at these rarefied levels. Needless to say I loved it (it’s by Iain Banks for goodness sake!!) but I suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea since its depth might be perceived as being in shallow places. That’s a narrow minded view – I found it funny and profound ("Wee shites!"), but not everyone will agree with me.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – "My name is Alan Robson and I am a biblioholic". Used and Rare is a book about this harmless (?!?!) addiction. It chronicles the Goldstone’s discovery of the joys of book collecting. A small expedition to procure a hardback copy of War and Peace as a birthday present proved to be the turning point and the introduction to a lifelong (and VERY expensive) hobby. He who dies with the most books wins – but he who dies with the most interesting (possibly valuable) editions gains brownie points. The book follows the Goldstones through second hand bookshops peopled by raving nutters (gentle eccentrics), auctions wherein ridiculous sums of money change hands and it culminates in the quiet contemplation of a beautifully filled bookcase. I identified with this book and its authors far too closely for comfort. But I laughed out loud and nodded in recognition. If you have the least love of books in your heart this one will cheer you and amuse you and (dare I say it) educate you. Lovely! Lovely!

Charles de Lint has been described as the man who writes fantasy for those who don’t like fantasy. I don’t like fantasy, but I love Charles de Lint’s books, so I suppose the truth of it is self-evident. Someplace to be Flying is another of his Newford tales, stories set in the magical realism of an imagined city. Lily, a photojournalist, is in search of the animal people, who are rumoured to haunt the city’s slums. She is attacked (seemingly a simple mugging, but who knows?) and is rescued by Hank, a taxi driver. However the attacker turns on Hank, and he is hard pressed to defend himself. Two young girls intervene and the attacker is left dead in the street. Punk girls, crow girls, animal people. They are the first people; they never left and the city is theirs.

From the first page de Lint casts a subtle spell that sucks you in. The most outré images, the most surrealistic scenes (Who are the cuckoos? Why is Raven comatose?). If you put this one down before you finish it you have no imagination, you have no romance. Charles de Lint is always good. In this book he is great.

Eugene Byrne has written several short stories for Interzone and collaborated with Kim Newman on Back in the USSA. However Thigmoo is his first solo novel and on the evidence, he is leading from strength. At the University of Wessex, Sir John Westgate has spent ten years supervising a project that harnesses historical knowledge and computer technology to re-create fictional characters from all periods of history. These AI creations are as realistically detailed as possible (they pass Turing tests with ease). Soldiers, parsons, dockers and whores – the sum is often greater than the whole of the parts and profound historical insights are the main justification for continuing the project. But there are deep waters here. Just what do you mean by "self-awareness"? Define "reality" for me. Let these characters out into the world-girdling internet and give them a degree of autonomy. What happens next?

It may be trite (I’m not blind to the cliché) but Byrne’s treatment is never stale, is always original, always captivating. There is historical insight and contemporary philosophy here, and I really don’t know which one wins. I do know that both aspects were enthralling.

With The Year’s Best SF, Gardner Dozois has published his sixteenth annual collection of stories that he considers to be the best of the year. He would not have been able to keep this up for sixteen years if he wasn’t leading from strength, and this collection, like all of the others, contains not one dud story. It is pointless to summarise, invidious to attempt to distinguish between the stories. Take it as read that the collection is definitive, and go out and buy it immediately.

Every so often, newspapers such as the Grauniad run a survey designed to find their readers' opinions as to the funniest/silliest/most horrible town in Britain. Almost invariably, the winner is Scunthorpe, a town whose name simply cannot be pronounced without provoking gales of laughter or retches of reminiscence (though Wigan runs it a close second).

So perhaps it is fortunate that the Duke of Wellington was not the Duke of Scunthorpe, otherwise the capital of New Zealand would be a laughing stock the world over and we would all be wearing Scunthorpe boots. Both Billy Connolly and Jon Clarke would have to sing "If it wasn't for your scunties..." - a phrasing that is less than lyrical.

Perhaps we should also be grateful to the Earl of Sandwich as well. Imagine eating scunthorpes for lunch! Particularly when well-wrapped in greaseproof paper. Or consider that in the cocktail hour you might have to drink scunthorpes instead of manhattans. Would the scunthorpe be shaken or stirred, I wonder?

If the Battle of Balaclava had been in Lincolnshire instead of the Crimea then maybe we'd have to pull a scunthorpe over our head when we wanted to rob a bank. Or if the Earl of Cardigan had been less wise in his choice of parents, perhaps we'd change into a comfortable scunthorpe when we got home from work.

Can you imagine a suit made of scunthorpe tweed? Would you put scunthorpe cheese on your crackers or eat a scunthorpe bun?

When you come home of an evening, would you say hello to the scunthorpe, tickle it under the chin, make a scunthorpe for tea, settle down in front of the scunthorpe to watch a scunthorpe, have a cup of scunthorpe and then (feeling tired) climb into your scunthorpe, switch on your electric scunthorpe, kiss the scunthorpe good night and settle down for a good scunthorpe (snoring occasionally, the while).

Scunthorpe me! Didn’t we get off lightly?

Thomas M. Disch The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of The Free Press
Harry Turtledove Into the Darkness Earthlight
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger The Year 1000 Little, Brown
Gahan Wilson The Cleft and Other Odd Tales Tor
Jonathan Carroll The Marriage of Sticks Gollancz
Frederik Pohl The Far Shore of Time Tor
Brian Aldiss When the Feast is Finished Little, Brown
Robert Silverberg Lord Prestimion Voyager
Chris Ryan The Tenth Victim Century
Kim Newman Life’s Lottery Simon and Schuster
Arthur C. Clarke Greetings, Carbon Based Bipeds St. Martin’s Press
Brendan Dubois Resurrection Day Little, Brown
Iain Banks The Business Little, Brown
Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone Used and Rare St. Martins Griffin
Charles de Lint Someplace to be Flying Tor
Eugene Byrne Thigmoo Earthlight
Gardner Dozois The Year’s Best Science Fiction St. Martin’s Press

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