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

Obits and Visits

Two SF writers have died recently – James White and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Both will be sadly missed.

James White was one of the formative writers of my youth. In my early teens I encountered his stories of Sector General Hospital and I devoured them passionately. I think I must have read the print off the pages, my eyes passed over them so often. Later I discovered other stories and novels and began to appreciate just what an under-rated and ingenious writer he was. Years before Arthur C. Clarke wrote Rendezvous With Rama, James White explored the same theme in All Judgement Fled. In Open Prison he postulated a prison planet where prisoners of war were left pretty much to their own devices. There are no spaceships on the planet. How then are the prisoners to escape? In The Watch Below, a ship is sunk and survivors are trapped in an air bubble. The novel follows what happens to them and how they survive over several generations – yes, generations. In that microcosm of a sunken ship they manage to create a viable society.

The list goes on. James’ plots were never derivative and his plot resolutions were invariably breathtaking in their originality (and in the logic that led up to them). A lot of thought and a lot of work went into them. James was a very dedicated professional.

By coincidence, just before James died, I ordered a book called The White Papers which was published by NESFA press when James was Guest of Honour at the 1996 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles. It contains several short stories and articles (including Medic the very first Sector General story I ever read, and one that remains my favourite. Oh what a pleasure it was to read again of O’Mara, the construction worker building the hospital in space who is forced against his will to play mother to a Hudlar baby which is larger than an elephant…).

The articles in the book revealed a side of James which I had never seen before. Long before he was a professional novelist, he was a fan writer, and these fan articles are among the funniest I have ever read, laugh out loud funny – not an easy trick. I am saddened to think that there will be no more articles, no more stories.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had much less of an influence on me. I first encountered her in my twenties as the author of a series of semi-SF, semi-fantasy novels known collectively as the Darkover stories. They began as fairly routine hackwork but quickly transcended the genre and by the time she came to write what was (for me) the most impressive book of the series (The Heritage of Hastur) she was pushing every button in sight. It was a stunning work.

And then she threw it all away and completely reinvented herself. The Mists of Avalon was the beginning of a feminist reworking of the Arthurian myths. In several novels she examined the Matter of Britain from her own unique perspective (and with The Firebrand, she did the same thing for the Trojan wars) and the books received enormous critical acclaim. At the same time she began to edit both a fantasy magazine and an annual anthology series (the earlier science fictional leaning of her works was long gone now and by this stage she was an avowed fantasist), and these too were to prove hugely influential on the genre.

Many years ago I took an enormous train journey. I got on a train in Hong Kong and I got off it again in Helsinki. I travelled through China (which was full) and across Siberia (which was empty). For the journey I had a selection of books chosen (it must be admitted) more for their size than for their literary merit. And buried in amongst them was an absolute jewel which held me enthralled across many a hundred miles of emptiness. The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Unusually for her, it was a mainstream novel, a story of circus acrobats, their rigorous training, the lives and loves of a circus. In one sense a very simple story, but it came alive (and it did for trapeze work what Robert Silverberg did for juggling in Lord Valentine’s Castle).

Odd that perhaps Marion’s most obscure book should have been the one that moved me the most.

I think this book must have been one of the casualties of my marriage break up of several years ago. I went looking for it again when Marion died, and I was unable to find it. I would give a lot to be able to replace it.

But wot have I red this month, I hear you ask? Well…

Nicole Gunther-Perrin is a lawyer. She is justifiably proud of her legal skills and is well aware that work she has done has brought much business and kudos to the firm she works for. Consequently when one member of her team is asked to become a partner, she logically expects to have the same offer made to her. But it is not to be. Apparently there is only one partnership on offer and it has gone to her male colleague in preference to her. Not unnaturally, she is annoyed, and that night at home, she makes a libation to the gods Liber and Libera (she had bought a statue of them once on a holiday in Italy).

The next day, when she wakes, she is Umma, a widowed tavernkeeper in the Roman frontier town of Carnuntum around 170 AD. And that is where the story really starts…

Tarr and Turtledove have written a most magnificent historical novel. Forget the silly science-fictional trappings (Liber and Libera, for heaven’s sake!), forget the frame story of prejudice against women (it is all too obvious and is ultimately resolved in an all too obvious way). Concentrate instead on the simple story of everyday life in the Roman empire. The sights, the sounds the smells (ESPECIALLY the smells). It is all here and the writers bring it brilliantly to life. Put Household Gods high on your list of must-read books.

In House Atreides, Frank Herbert’s son Brian (in collaboration with Kevin Anderson) has written a prequel to Dune in which he attempts to detail the events that lead up to the magnificent drama of Herbert’s most famous novel. Unfortunately this is a game that cannot be won – so much is prefigured, so much is already known. There were mysteries in Dune and we read the book and we were intrigued by them. There can be no mysteries in House Atreides because we already know the answers, we know how the story ends, and so the book degenerates almost into soap opera and self-parody in a series of set-piece incidents that we could probably all have written ourselves. It attempts (and fails) to be as portentous as Dune itself was. It has also been appallingly badly copy edited. Almost every page is replete with typos ("to" instead of "too" is a particular favourite). It does not help the narrative at all to have the story telling spell broken every few sentences by such clumsiness. The proof reader should be shot.

Elizabeth Peters returns to Egypt at the turn of the century in Seeing a Large Cat. The ever delightful Amelia Peabody becomes involved in a murder investigation when a body is discovered in a tomb. Nothing odd about that, you might think, but this tomb dates from the time of the Pharaohs, and the body, while mummified, has been there for only about ten years and it is wearing silk underwear. The game is afoot. The brilliance of Elizabeth Peters’ books lies not in the plots (which are often a bit silly) but in the sheer delightful wit of the dialogue and the characterisation. This is the second novel I have read concerning the doings of Amelia Peabody, her husband Emerson and her son Ramses, and I have succumbed to temptation. I have just ordered all the rest of the series. I must have them!

I dialled a phone number. Ring, ring.


"Are you free for lunch?"

"Yes," said Maree. "Come and meet me at my place of shirk."

"Where’s that?" I enquired.

"125 Queen Street. Just go into the foyer. There are comfy seats beneath a three dimensional mural. Wait for me there."

I sauntered down Queen Street looking at numbers. An ornate old building with a legend carved into the stonework proclaimed itself to be at one and the same time the Bank of New Zealand and number 125. The building was just a fašade, kept for the sake of its attractiveness. The bank was long gone and as I entered I became aware of the bustle of people as they hurried between the shops which now occupied the entire available foyer space.

I looked carefully. No mural. There were several wooden benches, but they didn’t fit the description "comfy" at all. I sat on one. No – it wasn’t comfortable. This must be the wrong place.

I spied an escalator and rode it up. On the next floor were more wooden benches as uncomfortable as the first. No mural. Where was I to sit? How was Maree to find me in all this hustle and bustle? Panic set in and I took the lift to the 24th floor (as one does).

"Yes sir?" enquired the receptionist.

"Can you tell Maree that Alan Robson is here, please?"

"Certainly Sir. Please take a seat."

The seat was distinctly comfy and there were things on the wall. Had I perchance misheard the directions? Did I blink and miss the sentence "Take the lift to the 24th floor". I didn’t think I’d missed it, but you never know.

Soon Maree arrived. "This isn’t the downstairs foyer," she said icily.

"I got lost," I explained. "And confused. I couldn’t find the comfy chairs and the mural."

Maree looked puzzled. "How can you possibly miss it?"

"Show me where it is," I requested humbly. We took the lift down 24 floors but since it was now lunchtime we took the pretty route and examined all twenty four floors one after the other in enormous detail as the lift filled up with hungry office workers. Maree took me out into the street (via the shops) and then pointed out an entrance with "125" on it in big bold, black numbers. We entered. There in front of me was a mural and comfy seats, just as described.

"See!" she said. I saw.

"That’s not the door I came in through," I pointed out. "My door didn’t lead here."

Maree began to look exasperated. "Show me!" she thundered. Meekly I took her up the street to the old Bank of New Zealand building with the number "125" on the door.

"I went in there," I said. "Did I do wrong?"

"In all my time going up and down this street," said Maree firmly, "I’ve never seen that door before. Nobody has ever seen that door before. Everybody, without exception, has always gone through the door with "125" on it in big bold, black numbers - the door that leads into the foyer with the mural and the comfy chairs. Half the population of Auckland has visited me at work at one time or another and every single one of them has been able to find the foyer, the mural and the comfy chairs with no trouble at all. Only you, in the entire history of the universe have ever managed to find a DIFFERENT door with "125" on it that leads somewhere else. How do you DO this?" She stamped her foot in exasperation.

I hung my head in shame, and my hat fell off.

Geography? Don’t talk to me about geography.

In The Code Book, Simon Singh discusses the history of cryptography through the ages; all the way from the simple substitution ciphers attributed to Julius Caesar (still used today in ROT13 messages in Usenet newsgroups; those of you who are not internet junkies please ignore this parenthetical remark) through to today’s highly complex algorithms based on the products of very large prime numbers and amenable to analysis only by computer.

Singh has an enviable talent for making complex mysteries easily understandable. I have read many explanations of the wartime Enigma machine, but Singh’s description is the only one I have ever read that made its workings comprehensible.

And as the story unfolds, many fascinating historical details come to light. For example, the conspiracy that eventually cost Mary Queen of Scots her head was plotted in a series of encrypted letters that were all intercepted by Queen Elizabeth’s spies. Mary’s trial (and conviction) all hinged around the results of the analysis of these letters. Fortunately for Elizabeth, she had in her employ one Thomas Phelippes, one of the foremost cryptanalysts of the age. Mary never stood a chance

This is an important and utterly enthralling book. The crystal-clear descriptions of cryptographic techniques and the historical context within which they are placed are dramatic and compelling. The book makes an interesting companion piece to Neal Stephenson’s new novel Cryptonomicon. Perhaps you should hold Stephenson’s novel in one hand and Singh’s history in the other and read turn and turn about from each. Except the novel is too large and heavy to manage that with any degree of comfort. Pity that…

Hal Clement was one of the stalwarts of the golden age of SF. He wrote the hardest of hard science fiction – ingenious and utterly fascinating stories and novels that won him much acclaim and many awards. He has been silent now for almost a decade, but has recently published a new novel, Half Life.

Two centuries from now, the human race is facing extinction. New diseases spread like wildfire, mutating as they go. The death rate soars, the birth rate plummets; the writing is on the wall.

For no particular reason that I can see, a crew of young men and women (most of them already ill) travel to the moons of Saturn, to Titan, to investigate the biochemistry of primitive life in the hope of discovering something that can help with the problems on Earth.

Sad to say, the book is not very good; the magic has gone, buried in the minutiae of yet another planetary exploration. It struggles into fitful life occasionally, but the bulk of it is just humdrum detail and artificially induced tension (an exploration plane crashes – ho hum).

I’ve always been lukewarm towards Lois McMaster Bujold’s stories about Miles Vorkosigan. Partly it’s an antipathy towards yet another semi-medieval, semi-feudalistic galactic empire with nepotistic, aristocratic trappings, and partly it’s because I just find Miles completely unbelievable. He is so hugely crippled by his deformed body that I simply cannot suspend my disbelief in his achievements.

But a friend suggested that I read Komarr, and so I did. The eponymous planet has suffered a catastrophe. An ore freighter has crashed into the orbiting array of solar mirrors that are a vital component of the terraforming process. Miles is one of the investigating team. Is it sabotage or merely an accident? Soon the mysteries (and the bodies) begin to pile up.

Stated thus baldly it sounds ho-hum, but actually there is much more to it than the plot outline might suggest. Despite my antipathy to Miles, Bujold does paint him in a sympathetic light and he is most certainly a three-dimensional character. His interactions with those around him (and despite my carpings about the stupidity of the aristocratic society, the environment is undeniably well drawn) are in a large measure the ingredient that lifts the plot above the banal. In Komarr we have a lady trapped in a loveless marriage. Miles is hugely attracted to her (and the reader knows that she is attracted to him, though Miles is not privy to this information; isn’t omniscience wonderful?). Her husband proves to have an unfortunate connection with the events that Miles is investigating (no surprise there) and this only serves to add complications.

It would be all too easy to turn this mixture into soap-opera sludge. It is to Bujold’s credit that not once does she even get close to this catastrophe. My friend was right to recommend the book to me. It really is very good indeed.

I can never decide whether I like Poppy Z. Brite’s short stories better than her novels or vice-versa. Reading Are You Loathsome Tonight (what a brilliant title!) makes me prefer her stories, for this is a collection. But the next time I read one of her novels I will doubtless change my mind again.

Gore, grue, cannibalism, vampirism, sex and miscellaneous body parts (both attached and detached) are the mainstays of her fiction and this collection is no exception. Those of you who like to leave no stone unturned, no punches unpulled, no sensation unexplored will relish these stories. But be warned, they are not for the weak of stomach.

Being British, I relish toilet humour more than any other kind of humour (the British have a national obsession with their bowels) and thus I devoured (figuratively speaking) Up Shit Creek which is subtitled A Collection of Horrifyingly True Wilderness Toilet Misadventures. Joe Lindsay is a commercial river guide on the Colorado River. Over the years he has observed more than his fair share of faecal foul-ups, and now he tells us all about them in all their colourful (well brown, actually) detail. Yummy!

In Going Abroad (a bathroom survival guide), Eva Newman discusses all the myriad ways that you pee and poo in various countries throughout the world. She explores the social niceties of going, and how to clean yourself up afterwards (helpful diagrams are provided). The book runs the gamut from squatting in Syria to sitting down in Scandinavia, with a brief discourse upon the bidet. It is all leg-crossing material and, speaking personally, as a result of reading this book I’ve decided that I’m never going to go to the toilet again. Ever.

Excuse me. I need to go and replace my cork. It just pooped (er, ummm, popped) out.

James White The White Papers NESFA
Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove Household Gods Tor
Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson House Atreides Hodder and Stoughton
Elizabeth Peters Seeing a Large Cat Warner
Simon Singh The Code Book 4th Estate
Hal Clement Half Life Tor
Lois McMaster Bujold Komarr Earthlight
Poppy Z. Brite Are You Loathsome Tonight? Gauntlet
Joe Lindsay Up Shit Creek Ten Speed Press
Eva Newman Going Abroad Marlor Press

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