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

To Cook Or Not To Cook? That Is The Question...

The cooker in my kitchen wasn't quite as old as me, but I ran it a very close race. When it was cooking its first meal, the Beatles were at the top of the charts and I was struggling with the intricacies of the ablative absolute in Latin classes half a world away. So when the cooker and I finally made our acquaintance, we were both of us well past the first flush of youth.

It was brown -- well, either that or there had been an awful lot of food spilled on it over the years. This gave it a somewhat gloomy appearance. Considering when it was born, it really should have been enamelled in day-glo orange, but I'm very glad it wasn't.

The timer was clockwork, and its cogs and gears were so congested with the grease from a million joints of roast beef that it was no longer capable of timing anything at all, unless the dish required infinitely long cooking. Very few recipe books recommend cooking times that long...

The oven was suffering from senile dementia. It would warm itself up nicely to something slightly above the temperature that I'd selected -- the thermostat was not the most accurate in the world and it tended towards the hotter rather than towards the colder -- and happily sit there for a few minutes. Then it would forget that it had already heated itself up, and so it would turn on its coils again for a little while. The temperature would start to rise well above the setting on the thermostat. But after a few minutes, the cooker would remember that it had forgotten that the job was already done, and so the coils would go off again. Then a short time later it would once more forget that it had remembered that it had already reached the optimum temperature, and so the coils would turn on again as the cycle repeated itself. If left alone, this behaviour always resulted in an oven set with an initial temperature of (say) 150 degrees which had reached a final temperature of 350 degrees with all the elements glowing white hot as they desperately tried to raise it even higher. Since food cooked in this manner tends towards the excessively crispy, I therefore had to keep a very close eye on the oven in order to discourage its demented behaviour. And so every time it turned itself on, I would dial the temperature down a bit until it turned itself off again. Thus a constant oven temperature of 150 degrees (give or take 50 degrees) was cleverly maintained by lower and lower settings on the controls. By the time the cooking was done, the oven would still be somewhere in the region of 150 degrees, even though the dial would now be be set to round about 10 degrees and my nerves would have frazzled themselves into shredded wreckage.

I compensated for this eccentricity by seldom using the oven at all. Fortunately there were four powerful hotplates on the top. These worked quite well and over the years they cooked me many a successful stew, casserole and curry. I find it hard to tell these three dishes apart -- I think the differences depend far more upon the guests at the table than they do upon the ingredients of the food itself. If your guests won't eat nasty foreign muck, just tell them it's a stew; if they find stews dull and old fashioned, tell them it's a casserole and if they find casseroles too bland tell them it's a curry. Make sure that you serve the appropriate side dishes for whatever you have decided the main course is pretending to be and Robert is your avuncular relative. Works every time!

And then, one weekend, the hotplates decided to play the same silly games that the oven was playing. None of this slow simmering, thank you very much. Slow simmering is for wimps. Lets get it over and done with. Up with the temperature! Soon the hotplates were able to give me only two temperature choices. On and off. Yin and yang. Hot and cold. Top and bottom. Maximum and minimum. Up and down. Black and white. Computer nerd though I am, I simply couldn't face the future with a binary only cooker. Culinary creations require far more subtlety than that. It was time for a new cooker. Sunday morning dawned bright and clear; a perfect time to head off to the showrooms!

Fuzzy Nation is John Scalzi's "reboot" of H. Beam Piper's classic novel Little Fuzzy. In a sense, this is an unnecessary book; Piper's original novel is a famous and well loved story which spawned several sequels and if you haven't read it, you really should because it is a truly wonderful tale. It's in the public domain (the copyright expired long ago) and it is freely downloadable from Project Gutenberg.

So why did Scalzi feel the need to re-write it?

Well, there is no doubt that it is showing its age. The science, sociology and politics of Piper's novel are definitely a bit simple minded to modern perceptions. The science just feels quaint and the rest of it is more than a little naive. Furthermore Piper's prose is never more than workmanlike and it too is a little crude. So Scalzi (with the full permission of Piper's estate) has rewritten the story to accommodate modern tastes, fashions and ideas. And he has done a magnificent job.

If you have read the original story, you will find no surprises in Scalzi's reboot. A mining company is stripping a planet of valuable resources. However the prospector Jack Holloway has stumbled across a species which shows clear evidence of sentience. These, of course, are the fuzzies of the title. If it can be proved that the fuzzies are sentient, the mining company will not be able to continue with its very profitable exploitation of the planet's mineral wealth. So naturally they have a vested interest in proving that the fuzzies aren't sentient. The scene is set for conflict, both overt and covert; dirty deeds and public protestations abound.

In the original novel, Jack Holloway was a little too good to be true. Scalzi paints him in a much less idealistic light. He's a complex individual, often selfish, with motives that translate into self-interest, but which can appear idealistic to outside observers. Holloway is a wheeler-dealer, a sometimes cynical manipulator of those around him as he chases his own ends and uses his friends (and sometimes his enemies) to achieve them. He's a subtle man and his friends' appreciation of why he is doing the things that he does is often wildly at odds with Holloway's real reasons for his actions. His saving grace (though it is a small one) is his well-honed sense of the ridiculous. As the story progresses, he somehow finds himself on the side of the good guys, though it is not always clear that he is happy in that role.

I much prefer Scalzi's Holloway to Piper's equivalent character. He's more fully formed, more believable. Unfortunately Scalzi does not give the other characters the same degree of complexity. Many of them remain the same two dimensional, black and white ciphers that they were in Piper's original. It's hard to believe in a truly bad man, a man with no saving graces at all and it's even harder to accept that such a person could rise to a position of authority. And yet a major opponent of Holloway's is just such a man -- Joe DeLise is the head of security for the mining corporation. He's a brainless, sadistic thug with no redeeming features whatsoever. I found him hard to accept.

Of course, the story simply won't work unless the fuzzies are convincing. The reason that Piper's original novel has remained so wildly popular is because somehow he managed to push the cute button into overdrive. Piper's fuzzies are the kind of creatures that absolutely everyone wants to have in their lives. If the fuzzies turn out not to be sentient, you'd want them as a pet. If they turn out to be sentient you'd want them as a friend. They are just incredibly attractive, no matter how you look at them.

Perversely, however, despite the fact that I think Scalzi's novel is much "better" (whatever that means) than Piper's, his fuzzies are nowhere near as attractive. They aren't on stage long enough to acquire the distinct personalities that Piper's fuzzies had. Scalzi sacrifices his fuzzy scenes for the sake of advancing the plot and I think that is possibly a mistake. I'd have liked to see a longer book with more attention paid to Holloway's interactions with the fuzzies which would have helped to develop them more as characters in their own right. Perhaps in the sequel...

There is no doubt that Scalzi has succeeded in his plan to reboot the fuzzy universe (can I say fuzzyverse? No -- I don't think I can). Fuzzy Nation is a tour-de-force and I would be more than happy to see Scalzi continue to write books about the fuzzies. Piper had a lot to say about them and it is clear that Scalzi has a lot to say as well. Will there be sequels? No plans have been announced. But if the book sells as well as I expect it to, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them.

Reboots seem to be in fashion. Lawrence Block is a crime writer whose major series concerns the life and times of Matthew Scudder, an ex-cop and a kind of informal private eye. Block has just written A Drop Of The Hard Stuff, the seventeenth novel in the series. And it's a reboot.

The Scudder novels have been getting progressively weaker of late and the sixteenth novel, All The Flowers Are Dying was really rather poor. It seemed that perhaps Block was tiring of his major character. However A Drop Of The Hard Stuff is magnificent, a true return to form and perhaps one of the best books in the series so far.

I think that the reason for the weakness of the later novels was that Scudder himself was growing old and his adventures were getting smaller. He was also a much less angry man, a much less bitter and tormented man. He was in a loving relationship, he had a lot of friends. He'd settled down, his life was good.

The Matthew Scudder of the earlier books was a very damaged man; he had deaths on his conscience and he found the world cruel. Hands were turned against him and friends were few (though acquaintances were many; some of these people later became friends). He was a much more interesting man in those days. Block has rebooted the series in A Drop Of The Hard Stuff by giving us a story from those early, harder times. There's a prologue and an epilogue which make up a frame set in the modern day (just to put the tale in context as number seventeen) but the story itself is told in flashback.

Scudder has been sober for nearly a year. He is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and attending AA meetings is a large part of his life. At one meeting, he comes across a childhood acquaintance. They renew their friendship -- Jack Ellery is, in many ways, a representation of Scudder's dark side; the man that, had things been different he could have become. As both a policeman and a private detective, Scudder solved crimes, but Ellery was dedicated to committing them. Nevertheless both Scudder and Ellery had similar childhoods, they grew up in the same neighbourhood, they knew the same people. Now, as they renew their friendship years down the track, Ellery sees in Scudder the moral upstanding member of society that he could have been. And in Ellery, Scudder sees the hard-won sobriety he hopes to achieve for himself together with the criminal path that he himself could so easily have taken. It is hard to judge either man. Each is just a product of similar circumstances. One is a mirror image of the other.

Then Ellery is murdered, and Matt sets out to find the killer. His investigation introduces the reader to a colourful portrait gallery of vividly eccentric people and the dark places of the city where the fallen angels lurk.

It's a book I simply couldn't put down. Dark, complex and beautifully written It is just superb.

Robert Silverberg is best known as a writer of fiction. He is not often thought of as a writer of non-fiction. Nevertheless he has written a lot of it -- like his old friend Isaac Asimov, Silverberg is something of a renaissance man, a polymath who is always keen to explain things to an appreciative audience. For many years, Silverberg has had a regular (sometimes semi-regular) column in which he waxes polemical about anything that takes his fancy. At the moment the column is published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. The collections Reflections and Refractions and Musings And Meditations are selections from these columns wherein Silverberg muses about about science, science fiction, science fiction writers, politics, sociology and just plain stuff.

And everything he has to say is fascinating.

I've also been reading some more of Colin Cotterill's novels about Dr Siri Paiboun, the seventy something year old national coroner in 1970s Laos. These books truly do get better and better the further on the series you go. Cotterill has obviously found is metier and is now exploring it for all that he is worth. I raved about these books last month and this paragraph is yet another rave. I'm not going to repeat everything I said last time. Suffice it to say that all of it still applies in spades as Cotterill sends Siri on more adventures of the criminal / supernatural kind and, at the same time, uses the opportunity to explore the nature of communism, cynicism, opportunism and pretty much every other -ism in the dictionary, all leavened with utterly delightful wit and warmth and humour. These books are a joy from beginning to end.

It soon became clear to me that modern cookers came in two flavours. Cheap white ones and expensive stainless steel ones. Brown was definitely not possible in either incarnation. Unfortunately, even the cheap white ones were priced in the eye-watering range as far as my wallet was concerned. And the stainless steel ones, while undeniably sexy, were about the same price as a luxury car, with almost as many gadgets but without the ability to roar down the motorway at 100kph.

I pointed to the cheapest of the cheap white ones, four rings and an oven, just like my old brown one.

"I'll have that cooker, please."

"Certainly sir. When would you like it delivered?"

"Tuesday, please. And will you take the old one away and dispose of it?"

"Of course we will, sir. Would you like us to give it a long, lingering, painful death or would you prefer a quick and easy euthanasia?"

"Oh, the latter, please. I don't want it to suffer. I'm not a cruel man."

That afternoon I cooked my last ever meal on the old brown cooker. I played the usual game of temperature tag with the senile oven. I think it must have known that its end was nigh because it bit me viciously as I took the roasting pan out, and I now have a vivid burn on the back of my right hand which shows promise of an interesting scar.

Tuesday dawned and two men delivered my new cooker. One of the men looked like Russell Crowe and one of them didn't. They wheeled the new cooker in to the house and the one who didn't look like Russell Crowe said, "Watch out for the snake," to the one who did look like Russell Crowe as he walked past the toy rattlesnake that we have hanging from a lamp on the wall. I rattled the tail and the one who looked like Russell Crowe smiled a secret smile.

The one who didn't look like Russell Crowe unplugged the old cooker and then disconnected its power cable which he left neatly coiled on the kitchen sink ready for the electrician to connect to the new cooker. They took the old cooker away. It whimpered pitifully as it left the house it had lived in for nearly fifty years, but I hardened my heart. The one who looked like Russell Crowe patted the snake as he walked past it and it bit him on the bum.

While I waited for the electrician to come and connect up the new cooker, I passed the time by cleaning up several decades worth of greasy, brown manky bits that the old cooker had excreted all over the floor beneath itself. Despite the advice given in the TV adverts for miracle cleaning products, you can't just spray and wipe this stuff away. Prolonged and vigorous scrubbing is essential. And even then it doesn't necessarily work too well, particularly when the goo has been there for so long that it has fossilised into something closely resembling a collection of coprolites. Perhaps I was cleaning a very old and very gradual increment of excrement!

Eventually I got the area vaguely clean and then the electrician arrived.

The first thing he did was screw a complicated looking device to the floor.

"What's that?" I asked.

"It's an anti-tilt device," he said.

"What's an anti-tilt device? And why do I need one? The old cooker didn't have one."

"It's the law now," he explained. "You see, in the years following the delivery of your old cooker, far too many little old ladies opened their oven doors, bent down to inspect their scones, and then slipped and fell onto the open oven door. Their weight on the door caused the oven to tilt forwards and fall down on top of them, crushing them to death and getting the scones dirty. This was widely regarded as being bad for business and therefore all modern cookers are required by law to have an anti-tilt device so that when the little old ladies fall across their oven door the cooker stays upright and they live to bake more scones."

"What a good idea," I said. "How does it work?"

"Oh it just hooks into the back of the stove and holds it firmly in place so that forces from unexpected angles won't topple it over. It works in earthquakes as well."

"Presumably that's an unexpected side effect?" I asked.

"Oh, indeed," he said.

He wired it all up, tested it out and said, "There you are, squire. All done. Happy cooking!"

It's my first ever brand new cooker. All the cookers I have used in the past have been pre-loved and have exhibited various eccentricities of control caused by miscellaneous bits wearing out and being replaced by things that weren't quite right or, in some cases by not being replaced at all. So I was quite looking forward to playing with a cooker that had all its mechanisms in place and which did everything exactly as it was told to do; no more and no less. I carefully planned the first week's menus in order to make the maximum possible use of every cooking surface available to me rather than for the sake of any nutritional content in the food itself. That meant that I could get the greatest possible cooking pleasure from my new toy.

As might be expected, I had some initial timing issues because years of coping with ancient and eccentric cookers had given me all the wrong reflexes.

The first major setback was was caused by the oven heating itself up to the temperature I'd told it I wanted and then just stayed there. This was quite an unexpected surprise. I'd completely forgotten that ovens did that. And because the oven never overheated itself, the vegetables roasting in it proved to be nowhere near ready when the stew/casserole/curry on top was thoroughly cooked. Fortunately stews/casseroles/curries are very forgiving of longer cooking times than they are expecting. It's the long, slow simmering that makes them so flavourful and my new hotplates had such exact fingertip temperature control that very long and very slow simmering was easily attained. "A stew boiled is a stew spoiled" as the old wives words of wisdom have it. They know what they are talking about, those old wives. Pay attention to them. I set the stew/casserole/curry to barely bubble and when the vegetables in the oven finally caught up with the simmering feast, the result was scrumptious.

I've been practising a lot and I think I've got the hang of it now. So do you want to come to dinner? I promise to try and guess who you are (obligatory movie joke for all you media fans out there...)

John Scalzi Fuzzy Nation Tor
Lawrence Block A Drop Of The Hard Stuff Little, Brown
Robert Silverberg Reflections And Refractions Underwood
Robert Silverberg Musings And Meditations Non Stop
Colin Cotterill Curse Of The Pogo Stick Soho Crime
Colin Cotterill The Merry Misogynist Soho Crime
Colin Cotterill Anarchy And Old Dogs Soho Crime
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