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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (quisquilia et felina)


How does one deal with a corpse? Sometimes dead bodies litter the house – there are birds in the bathroom, and mice in the kitchen. Every so often rats go squish crunch as you walk to the toilet in the tiny, tiny morning hours. Lizards lie in wait, skinking beneath casual feet. Feathers tickle, but nobody shrieks with laughter, they only shriek with horror. Semi-corpses are even worse. They skittle and scuttle and hide under the fridge. Sometimes they scream. Mostly, Robin and I inhume dead things in plastic supermarket bags and deposit them in the kitchen rubbish bin. Over time bacterial decomposition releases clouds of noxious gases and the bags containing the corpses swell to such enormous volumes that there is no more room in the rubbish bin for potato peelings or broccoli stalks. Then we have a rubbish crisis. But never mind, it will soon be Sunday...

Every Sunday evening there is much hustle and bustle in our household. Rubbish must be carefully collected and collated, for tomorrow is collection day. The rubbish collectors come at an obscenely early hour on Monday and therefore the rubbish has to be put out on Sunday evening so as to avoid the stench of farting sparrows in the morning. But we are not allowed to put the rubbish out too early on Sunday evening – the council leaflets warn of dire consequences for anyone who litters the streets with rubbish prior to 7.00pm. Hanging, drawing and quartering are among the least of the penalties that may be imposed. Consequently the window of opportunity for getting the rubbish safely to the kerbside is small. It can only be done after dinner time and before bed time. All too often the gap between these events is tiny – Robin and I are both old and ugly. We require lots of beauty sleep. The house commonly resonates with the sound of snoring by 7.15pm. Sometimes the snoring is so loud that we have to wake the cats up because they are drowning out the dialogue on the television.

This particular Sunday, the cats were helping me with the rubbish ritual. They were anxious to get everything done as efficiently as possible.

"Where are the council rubbish bags that you empty the kitchen bins into?" asked Harpo. "I really enjoy their yellow crinkliness. It feels so good beneath my claws when it splits and shreds."

"And then it spills all that yummy stuff on the floor," said Bess, licking her lips in anticipation and flexing her claws.

I filled the yellow council rubbish bag with rubbish from the kitchen bin while the cats watched me fill it with treasure. I considered piercing the ballooning corpse containers in order to make more room but I decided against it. The cats peered with interest at the exhumed remains of their prey.

"I remember that mouse," said Harpo reminiscently. "I had lots of fun with it on the lawn before it stopped moving. That's when I brought it in for you and you made it vanish into thin air. So that's where it finally ended up. Well I'll go to the foot of our stairs!"

"Is there a rat in there?" asked Bess. "I distinctly remember a rat."

"Never you mind," I said. "Just help me carry this lot out to the kerbside."

The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann is a stunningly brilliant novel.

Things are going wrong on the planet of Paradise. Crops are failing and the indigenous plant life is changing in unpredictable ways. And so the powers that be make the decision to close the planet down, to cut their losses and leave the place to itself. Paradise will be disestablished.

The book is supposedly written long after the disestablishment has taken place, and the events are recollected with the benefit of hindsight. The person most closely involved was Hera Melhuish and her story is told by her biographer, a sometime fiction writer called Olivia. This distancing device is a very clever literary strategy on Phillip Mann's part – Hera is quite an unpleasant person, stubborn, reckless, often stupid and hopelessly naïve. Seeing her through the filter of Olivia's eyes makes her a little more bearable. Indeed, Olivia often interrupts her own narrative to remonstrate with some of Hera's more outrageous or peculiar attitudes.

The major strength of the novel is the wonderfully imagined world of Paradise itself. Phillip Mann has always had a genius for creating alien life and never has it been better exemplified than in this book. There are no animals, birds insects or fish on Paradise. All ecological niches are filled by plants such as the ubiquitous Tattersall weed, the dangerous Michelangelo-Reaper and the fabulous Dendron Peripatetica, long thought to be extinct until the last one in existence walks into Hera's life. In the body of the book, Hera and her companion Mack are often threatened by the flora of Paradise, but appended to the narrative are historical documents from the early years of settlement which show that the planet was once a much more benign place than it is now. Its name was aptly chosen. This too is a very clever literary strategy and I would have liked to have seen many more of these early documents. They definitely add a rich dimension to the story, though it is depressing to realise just how much things have changed on Paradise.

It quickly becomes clear that there is a psychic undertone to the events on Paradise. And again the cleverness of the literary structure that Phillip Mann has imposed on the story comes to the fore. Hera, despite having had extensive scientific training and experience, descends into mysticism as the psychic aspects of the connectedness of life on the planet become clear to her. Many of her colleagues argue against this mumbo-jumbo and even her biographer Olivia is extremely sceptical, though Hera seems to find it transformational. Such appeals to the numinous are perfectly legitimate literary devices for a science fiction novel to indulge itself in (Arthur C. Clarke, for example, did it all the time). Indeed, you can easily argue that this is a major reason for having science fiction as a literary form in the first place – we all like to try to explain the inexplicable and science fiction does that better than any other medium. However it is all too easy in a book like this to stray over what is often a vaguely drawn line in the sand and descend into claptrap. But by presenting both argument and counter argument as he does, Phillip Mann generally avoids this and the story is much stronger as a result.

However even Homer nods – Mack uses a dowsing pendulum to track down the Dendron (at one point the pendulum is referred to as a "precision instrument" – humph!) and Hera laments that if only Galileo had spent as much time studying Earth magic as he spent studying maths and optics then the world would have been a very different place; a statement that, quite typically for Hera, makes no sense whatsoever.

Mack's dowsing ability is not an outgrowth of the ever stronger psychic influences of Paradise – I think I would have accepted it more easily if it had been. It is clear from context that this is a power he has used throughout his life. In terms of the novel it's simply a rabbit pulled out of a hat, a deus ex machina called into play out of nowhere to resolve a knotty plot problem. Such things never satisfy.

But in the final analysis, none of this matters. What matters is the tremendous and wonderfully sustained and consistent vision that is Paradise itself, that beautifully imagined world which the book brings so vividly to life.

Let me end as I began. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a stunningly brilliant novel.

On the other hand, Blue Remembered Earth by Alistair Reynolds is a stunningly dull novel, not to say stupid. It is set about a hundred and fifty years from now. Somehow or other, Africa has become the dominant superpower. It provides the world with technological advances and it drives the world economy. Crime, war, disease and poverty no longer exist. I remain unconvinced that this is possible, particularly over such a short span of time. But I'll give Reynolds the benefit of the doubt. This is a novel after all. It's not supposed to be real.

Everything about life on Earth is controlled by a version of today's surveillance society writ large. However the settlements on the far side of the moon have rejected the idea of surveillance and are regarded with some suspicion as a result. This contrast allows Reynolds to indulge himself in some very heavy-handed and obvious social commentary and satire, much to the detriment of what little story there is.

Anyway, Geoffrey Akinya, scion of one of the richest and most powerful African families just wants to be left alone so that he can continue his studies into the habits and structure of the elephant herds of the Amboseli basin. But Geoffrey's family has other plans for him. Geoffrey's grandmother Eunice has died in her home on the Moon. Some things about the circumstances of her death are, shall we say, awkward and Geoffrey is to travel to the moon to investigate. It seems that Eunice left behind some hints about something (nobody is very sure what) and soon Geoffrey is following a trail of clues that lead him all over the solar system in search of … well, not much really.

The book is built up from a series of vignettes that, I presume, are supposed to add themselves together into a story. And considered as travelogue about some vaguely interesting places I suppose it's OK – but the story never really comes together. Nothing is properly resolved and it all seems somewhat arbitrary, probably because Reynolds still has two more volumes to write. I won't be reading them.

Now admit it – you read SF because it blows your mind. The sheer spectacle and mind-tingling thrill of outré speculations are what attracted you to the genre in the first place and so you keep reading it, hoping against hope to find something new to blow your mind again. But your palate is jaded and nothing seems quite as exciting as once upon a time it did...

And that's where Mike Ashley comes in. He's edited a collection of stories called The Mammoth Book Of Mind Blowing SF with the avowed intention of doing exactly what the title says it will do. I think they call that honesty in advertising.

The book is a mixture of the old and the new – the oldest story in the collection is The Bridge by James Blish which dates from 1952. (It was later incorporated into They Shall Have Stars the first novel in the Cities In Flight series). Surprisingly the story still reads well today and it is definitely very much into the mind blowing category. It tells of the engineering and social problems involved in the building of a bridge on Jupiter. Why would anyone want to build a bridge on Jupiter? Well, read the story and see.

The collection also includes stories by writers who are currently active in the field. However Stephen Baxter's story The Pevatron Rats is surprisingly pedestrian for Baxter and it didn't blow my mind at all. If you care, it's about mutant time travelling rats. I find this lack of spectacle odd since Baxter is a notorious mind blower. Perhaps he was having an off day. On the other hand, Geoffrey Landis's story Vacuum States might be about the end of the universe. And if that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what will!

By and large it's a good collection which tries very hard to live up to the promise in the title. Mostly it succeeds and you can't ask for more than that can you?

Apollo's Outcasts is Allen Steele's not very successful attempt to write a Heinlein juvenile novel. Sorry, but Robert Heinlein still reigns supreme in this area.

Jamey Barlowe, the first person narrator of the story was born on the Moon, but after his mother died, he moved back to Earth. His fragile bones can't handle Earth's gravity, and he is wheelchair bound. Then, on his sixteenth birthday, his father wakes him up in the middle of the night. There is some sort of crisis brewing and Jamey is sent back to the Moon. En route he learns that there has been a military coup in the United States.

Jamey arrives in the lunar mining colony Apollo with five other refugees, including his little sister and a young woman who is travelling under a false name. Everyone except Jamey quickly realises who she is (even the reader of the novel should be able to work it out without too much thought) but Jamey is a particularly dim and naïve person who generally fails to see what is right under his nose until somebody rubs that nose in it. Hard.

Meanwhile, Jamey can now walk independently again and he takes full advantage of it. But tensions continue to rise on Earth, and it isn't long before all eyes focus on the lunar colony as the U.S. President sets her sights on the Moon's crucial helium reserves...

Ho hum.

You don't have to have read the book to be able to write the rest of the story yourself. Every predictably inane plot twist that you can think of is there and the excitement level never rises above the mildly lukewarm. Jamey himself is an infuriating character. Whiny and stupid, he is the last kind of person you need as a narrator. Everything is filtered through his own dumb conceptions and most of the time you just want to pick him up and shake some sense into him!

The book is an embarrassment – particularly when it makes a deliberate attempt to emulate Heinlein's wise-cracking style. Sorry, but Heinlein cracked a lot wiser than Allen Steele ever could. Those bits of the book are quite squirmy.

The whole thing comes across as very condescending. I think Allen Steele constantly underestimates the sophistication of his audience which leads him to talk down to them (a mistake that Heinlein never made). All in all, that's a pity because Allen Steele has proved time and time again that he can write first class SF for his adult readers. But judging by Apollo's Outcasts he simply can't compete in the YA marketplace.

Kage Baker was one of the most original voices in modern SF. She had a short but astonishing career. Her first publication was in 1997 and she died in 2010. In those thirteen years she wrote seventeen novels and goodness knows how many shorter pieces – an amazing show of productivity. And I don't think I ever read a Kage Baker story that I didn't enjoy. Yes, she really was that good...

Now Subterranean Press have released The Best Of Kage Baker, a collection of twenty stories and novellas. And you really, really have to buy it because eleven of the pieces have never been collected before. There's a ghost story, a pirate story, and a steampunk story about the Gentleman's Speculative Society. There's a traditional Victorian whodunnit, a straight fantasy story and The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park which appears to be a previously unpublished story about The Company (an organisation which travels through time collecting and preserving extinct species and destroyed works of art). In this story, a Company operative is used as a living camera to document decades of change in Sutro Park in San Francisco. As the park declines, so also does a little girl who grows up and eventually deteriorates into madness as she fights to preserve the park she loves. It's a very moving tale. Read it and weep.

This is a wonderful collection – I don't think there's a single dud in it. I freely admit that I'm biased. But there's no question about it; Kage Baker was an important, gifted and brilliant writer and this is a first class collection of her stories.

We carried the rubbish bags outside and deposited them by the kerb. Harpo shot across the road to go exploring, narrowly missing a car along the way. His great bushy tail spread out behind him, giving the impression of a feline fox. He vanished into the darkness, a black cat out in the black night. Bess watched him go.

"He's always out having adventures," she complained. "Why can't I do that?"

"You can," I said. "The door is always open for you to come and go as you please."

"But the sofa is so warm and comfortable to sleep on all day and all night long. Apart from your bed, of course. That's the most comfortable of all."

"You do go out sometimes," I said. "At least once a day you go for a shit, a shave, a shower, and a shampoo in the garden."

"And it's fun," said Bess. "There are lots of rats in the bushes at the bottom."

"Oh. So that's where they come from. Tell me, why do you always make a point of bringing them to me on Monday evening after the rubbish has been collected? I really don't like it when they have to rot in the rubbish bin for a whole week."

Bess looked puzzled. "But Monday is rent day," she said.

"Rent day?"

"Yes," she explained. "You don't expect me and Harpo to live here without paying our way, do you? You provide board and lodging and in return we pay you for it. Fair's fare, so to speak. Monday is rent day."

"Couldn't you pay the rent on Saturday instead?"

"Oh no, that would never do. Cats are very conservative you know. We don't like change. Monday is rent day, and that's all there is to it."

Bess cut the conversation short by going over to the cushion that's always been her for ever favourite place for at least three weeks now. She curled up on it, wrapped her tail around her nose and fell asleep.

The next day, I lay in bed like the meat in a cat sandwich. Harpo was curled up close on one side of me and Bess was snuggled up on the other. I listened to the rubbish collectors outside as they tossed the bags into their truck and then moved on to the next house. Today was rent day. Hmmm...

Eventually the cats decided it was breakfast time and I was permitted to move. I poured biscuits into their bowl then I thought for a moment and took about half the biscuits out again and put them back in the packet.

"Yum," said Harpo, who doesn't quite understand quantitative measure. He dived in and began chewing but Bess looked suspicious.

"There aren't very many biscuits in my bowl," she said. "What's going on?"

"The vet says you are a bit overweight," I explained. "It's your sedentary lifestyle. And that's fine, it's your choice. But I'm cutting down on your food a little to make allowances for it."

"That's not fair," protested Bess. "Is it my fault that the house is full of comfy cushions?" She nibbled unenthusiastically at the slim scattering of biscuits in her bowl.

Once the cats had finished their breakfast, they both went out for their morning constitutional. Because today was rent day, I made sure to lock the cat flap behind them. Chortling with glee at my cleverness, I toddled off to get breakfast for myself.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist. He worked on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb and he made many original contributions to science. He was also a very funny man who enjoyed many of life's absurdities. If you have read Feynman's other collections of anecdotes and interviews, you won't find very much new material in The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out. Nevertheless it does have a unifying theme which is summed up in the title. First and foremost, Feynman wanted to know how the universe worked and whether he's laughing at it or delving into its mysteries, he is always very insightful. If you are at all interested in the thinking that lies behind the way that the scientific method works, you'll enjoy this book a lot.

Stuart Maconie was born in the North of England and in Pies and Prejudice he speculates on just what it is that gives the North its distinct character. I read the book with unalloyed pleasure since I too am from the North of England, though I was born on the other side of the Pennines from Stuart Maconie and therefore he is my mortal enemy. But nevertheless, allowances must be made.

There's no doubt that Maconie is a very funny man. You can read this book just for the jokes and have a fine old time with it. But there's a thread of bitterness running through it. Much of the North was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher's politics of confrontation. The infrastructure is gone, the livelihood of a generation was blasted away. There were hardships that hadn't been seen since the hunger marches of the early twentieth century. It seems ironically appropriate that I was reading this book the day that Margaret Thatcher died.

Today the North is reinventing itself and there was much about Maconie's little tales of what he found up there that piqued my curiosity. I'm almost tempted to go back and see just what has changed and what has remained the same during the thirty years I've been away from it.

The book will be invaluable to you if you want to know the difference between Salford and Manchester, why people from South Shields are occasionally referred to as Sandancers and exactly what a woolyback is. It will also be invaluable if you want a good, long laugh.

The Vietnam war was the defining issue of my generation. And like all wars it has produced more than its fair share of books attempting to define and analyse it. But unusually, there has been very little that was sufficiently insightful to be able to make a claim for greatness. There was Michael Herr's Dispatches of course and perhaps some of John Pilger's journalism (though he is more likely to be remembered for his reporting on Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge). But to this list should be added A Rumor Of War by Philip Caputo. It is certainly the definitive story of that sorry conflict told in great detail by a man who fought there. But it is much more than just a memoir.

Caputo went straight from school into the marines. He was full of gung ho idealism and he enlisted in a deliberate search for glory. He responded directly to John Kennedy's challenge to, "Ask not what your country can do for you. . ."

He joined up and suffered through the rigours of boot camp, but was nevertheless still filled with patriotic pride in his chosen occupation, convinced that he and his colleagues were the cream of the cream. Then he was sent off to war and he discovered that there was no glory and there was no honour in it. All he found was the death, the ugly death of both friends and enemies alike.

Caputo spares us nothing in his descriptions of life in the jungles of Vietnam -- the debilitating climate, the irritation of constant clouds of insects, the dampness and decay and the blood-sucking leeches, the snipers, the mines and the booby traps. It's a wonder that anybody survived. He describes the rage engendered by inconclusive battles with an enemy that was omnipresent and yet always fading away.

Gradually his enthusiasm turned to pessimism, despair and cynicism. His idealism vanished and he stopped thinking of his opponents as human beings. He raged against the system as he lost his humanity to it.

If this book has a message, it is that it is all too easy for a normal mentally healthy person to be turned into a thoughtless, psychotic killing machine over the course of a few months – a machine who is fast on the trigger, and who has no remorse for his actions. An outside observer might accuse such a man of committing atrocities, but he wouldn't see it that way.

This isn't a book about politics or strategy or even tactics. It's a book about what happens to a man in time of war. The war happens to be the one in Vietnam, but the lessons to be drawn from that war are universal. They apply to every soldier in every war. And American soldiers are learning those self-same lessons all over again today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Rumor of War is a timeless book that tells a simple truth. And that's what makes it a great book, a book for the ages.

Later in the day I heard Harpo howling outside the people door. Obviously he wanted to come in. I checked carefully through the window and as far as I could see, he didn't have the rent with him, so I opened the door to let him into the house. He stalked haughtily inside.

"What took you so long?" he demanded. "I told you to open the door at least thirty seconds ago."

As he walked past me he lashed out with a claw at my ankle and I bled a little onto my sock. Bess took advantage of the ensuing chaos to race in from beneath the bush where she'd been hiding.

"Thanks for distracting him, Harpo," she said.

"No worries," said Harpo, and he sauntered off in search of a nap.

Bess deposited a rat head, a bird beak and two weta legs at my feet.

"Rent," she announced. "The rat head is my payment for the week, the bird beak is Harpo's and the weta legs are because weta legs are horrible and I couldn't think what else to do with them."

I was puzzled. "Where's the rest of the rat, the bird and the weta?" I asked. "Normally you bring me entire corpses."

"Harpo and I took a unilateral decision," she explained. "You reduced the amount of food you give us, so we decided to reduce the rent that we pay."

I couldn't fault her logic. I began to anticipate lots of extra space in the rubbish bin. What could I possibly fill it all with?

Phillip Mann The Disestablishment of Paradise Gollancz
Alistair Reynolds Blue Remembered Earth Gollancz
Mike Ashley (Ed) The Mammoth Book Of Mind Blowing SF Running Press
Allen Steele Apollo's Outcasts Pyr
Kage Baker The Best Of Kage Baker Subterranean Press
Richard P. Feynman The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out Basic Books
Stuart Maconie Pies and Prejudice Ebury Press
Philip Caputo A Rumor Of War Holt Paperbacks


Many thanks to Jane Lindskold who carefully explained to me the subtle rules of how and why cats pay rent.

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