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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (phylum arthropoda)

Alan’s Adventures With Arthropods

“What can I get you?” asked the lady behind the bar.

“I’ll have a pint of your best quaffing ale, please” I said. She reached for a glass and began to pour my beer, being careful to put a nice head on it so as to trap the full flavour in the glass. My dry throat ached with anticipation as I watched the golden fluid rise up through the pint pot. My fingers twitched, eager to hold the glass. She shut off the tap just as the foam began to crawl over the edge. Beads of moisture glistened and ran down the side of the glass. I reached thirstily out for it, but she put it to one side, picked up another and began the whole operation all over again.

I stared in horror at my abandoned pint. “What was wrong with the first one?” I asked.

“Just as I finished pouring it, a fly flew in from nowhere at all, dived head first into the glass, splashed around for a little bit and then drowned. Didn’t you hear the pathetic gurgles as it splashed around in its death throes?”

“No,” I said. “I was concentrating too much on the perfect pint you were pouring for me. Can I see the fly?”

She handed me the original glass. A small black speck floated forlornly in the foam. She handed me my fresh, flyless pint and I took a deep and extremely satisfying swallow. “What will happen to the original?” I asked.

“Oh I’ll give it to the landlord,” she said. “He’s not fussy and if I don’t tell him about the fly, he’ll probably never even notice it. He tends to close his eyes and drink his beer in one continuous gulp. He’s a philistine. As long as the fly doesn’t tickle his oesophagus on the way down and make him cough he’ll be perfectly OK with it.”

“I really think you should tell him about the fly,” I said.

“Where’s the fun in that?” she retorted and trotted off in search of her thirsty boss. I sipped my pint and mused about the idiosyncrasies of arthropods.

In the novels that make up the Milkweed Trilogy, Ian Tregillis tells the tale of a World War II that never was. The story begins with Bitter Seeds. In Germany, a (presumably mad) scientist called Doktor von Westarp experiments on orphan children. The final results of his experiments have wires coming out of their skulls. The wires are attached to portable batteries and, as long as the batteries are charged, the children have super powers. One can walk through walls, one can foresee the future, one is a pyrotechnic. They are perhaps the ideal of the Aryan supermen made flesh. When the war comes they are on the front line. Their powers make them invincible, and Europe soon falls to the Nazi war machine.

Only in England is there some hope of keeping the German armies at bay. The warlocks of England are recruited by Milkweed, a shady offshoot of the secret service. The warlocks aren’t really making magic. Instead they have the ability to communicate, albeit badly, with the Eidolons, creatures out of space and time. Human blood allows the Eidolons to focus on that small portion of space and time that human beings live in. And they are willing to negotiate a blood price for interfering in the events that are taking place.

The second novel, The Coldest War takes place twenty years later. Britain’s desperate attempt to end the war with Germany was successful, but Europe is now completely under the control of Soviet Russia. The Soviets have continued von Westarp’s work and they have super powered troops of their own. The Eidolons are still protecting Britain, but at an ever increasing price. Gretel, the inscrutable precognitive originally created by Doktor Westarp, is using her knowledge of future events to manipulate the people around her into behaving in ways that give her the most chance of surviving. Nobody fully understands her reasons, and events seem to be spiralling out of control.

The story culminates with Necessary Evil. Milkweed has persuaded the Eidolons to send Ray Marsh (the protagonist of the the first two novels) back in time to try and nip the whole tragic mess in the bud and stop it before it even starts. As always, the cool and pitiless Gretel is manipulating events to her own peculiar ends. For the first time we get some understanding of what is going on in Gretel’s mind. And the ending, while perhaps a little bit predictable, will nevertheless knock your socks off.

So what does this trilogy amount to? It’s certainly a very clever story about super heroes. Normally I have little patience with these kinds of things. They are generally so silly that I find myself completely unwilling to suspend my disbelief. But somehow Ian Tregillis has managed the impossible and convinced me of the reality of his story. The spell he casts never breaks, and the dark and terrifying world he describes is very believable (and very scary). I loved the technological basis that lies behind the creation of the super beings, and the fact that they often have feet of clay just makes them all that much more believable. It’s also a very clever touch to oppose them with the Eidolons, those vast, eldritch, Lovecraftian monsters from out of space and out of time. Ian Tregillis tells a convincing and very powerful story.

Much of the story takes place in England. Tregillis himself is American, a fact of which I was unaware when I started reading the novels. He does an absolutely superb job of evoking the British way of life. However I did start to wonder about his nationality as I read the stories. Every so often a word or a phrase slipped in that seemed just a little too American to fit the scene. And so we get billfold, bassinet, faucet, diapers, chalkboard, pushpins, automobile, and gas pedal rather than wallet, cot, tap, nappies, blackboard, drawing pins, car and accelerator. But let’s face it, if all I can find to complain about are nit-picking details like these, you really have to wonder why I bother...

I recommend the Milkweed Trilogy unreservedly. They are stunningly good and very, very dark novels.

Tom Piccirilli mostly writes horror novels but The Last Kind Words and The Last Whisper In The Dark are actually mainstream crime novels. As you might expect from Piccirilli’s background, they are rather black (if it made sense, I might describe them as mainstream horror novels for the trials and tribulations he puts his characters through are indeed quite horrifying). Piccirilli has invented a family of thieves and con artists – they are brilliant at what they do and they make a living in the cracks of society. For some never really explained reason, all the men in the family are named after breeds of dog. The narrator is called Terrier, he has a brother called Collie, his father is called Pinscher and his uncles are Malemute and Greyhound. His grandfather Shepherd is lost in dementia and all the family find this at one and the same time both sad and scary for they are starting to see the same symptoms in themselves. The family completely redefines the meaning of dysfunctional.

In The Last Kind Words, Terry is summoned back to the bosom of his family. He has been living away from home for more than five years as he fled from a personal tragedy. But now his family needs him. His brother Collie is on death row and will face the needle in two weeks and he has unfinished business to complete before he dies. He freely admits to most of the murders that saw him convicted, though his motives still remain murky. However Collie insists that one of the victims was not his, and he wants Terry to look into it. Terry can’t see any reason why he should. As far as he is concerned, Collie deserves all he is going to get. But circumstances conspire to change his mind and he starts to dig rather more deeply into the case. Whatever he finds will make no difference to Collie’s sentence; his life will end when they take him into the execution chamber. So why should either Terry or Collie care? But the fact remains that they do.

Piccirilli continues the story in the sequel The Last Whisper In The Dark. When Terry’s mother met and married Pinscher, her father threw her out of the house and they haven’t spoken since. But now he is dying and he wants to see her again. He doesn’t want a reconciliation (perish the thought), but he has a use for the rather specialised talents of the family into which she married.

Both novels are a meditation on the power of family. Terry has struggled to escape the malign influence of his brother and his uncles (and even, to a certain extent, his father for whom Terry still has a grudging respect). But the ties that bind are very strong. There are the physical things (his family’s slow descent into dementia is used as a terrible and frightening metaphor) but there are also many less tangible forces pulling at the family. His uncles have got themselves into trouble with the local mobsters and despite his hatred for them, Terry finds himself moved to interfere, though the consequences are tragic. Sometimes people are their own worst enemies. His teenage sister is showing signs of wanting to enter the life. Terry can see nothing but harm for her there. And hanging over all of this is the black cloud of Collie’s death sentence. Terry is smart enough to understand all of this, but nevertheless finds himself powerless to change direction.

These are deep, thoughtful and powerful books and they mark Tom Piccirilli’s maturity as a writer.

After so much doom and gloom, I felt the need for something much more light hearted, something that is all surface and with no depth to it whatsoever. And so I re-read The Dragon And The George by Gordon R. Dickson. It was originally published in 1987 and it was very successful, so successful in fact that Dickson wrote half a dozen increasingly dire sequels. It’s probably best to pretend that they don’t exist. The original, however, is a joy and a delight.

Jim Eckert is an underpaid junior academic. He is love with Angie who is a lab assistant to the rather obnoxious Grottwold. One day he arrives at the lab to find Angie strapped into a mysterious apparatus. Grottwold is experimenting with astral projection. Unfortunately his experiment is a little too successful and Jim turns up just in time to see Angie shimmer and vanish from view.

Jim persuades Grottwold to send him after Angie on a rescue mission. He finds himself projected into the body of a dragon. In the world in which he finds himself, dragons are the dominant life form. They refer to human beings as “georges” based on their unfortunate experiences with Saint George himself. Angie is a george and she has been captured by the dark powers. Stand by for lights! Cameras! And action! And exclamation marks!

Dickson deliberately takes the common fantasy clichés and plays with them, poking and prodding at them to see if they will break. The book is a delightful, irreverent bit of froth and I loved it. If you can find a copy, you owe it to yourself to read it.

Algis Budrys wrote very little fiction. Nevertheless, he was a very influential writer and his novels Who?, Rogue Moon, and Michaelmas are generally considered to be classics in the field. However in retrospect it becomes clear that his greatest influence was as a critic and commentator. From 1965 until 1971 he wrote a regular review column called Benchmarks for Galaxy magazine. These were published in book form in an obscure edition in 1985 (the publisher was Southern Illinois University Press). Budrys moved his column to The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction in 1975 and continued writing his column until 1993. At various times plans were mooted to publish these columns in book form as well, but nothing ever came of those plans. However David Langford, through the medium of his publishing company Ansible Press, has now collected these later columns together into three very handsome volumes.

Ostensibly these columns are simply reviews of SF and Fantasy books. In practice, however, Budrys uses these reviews as the basis for extended essays on both the art and the craft of writing. As such they are deep, insightful and extremely clever (and they have lots of footnotes, so they must be erudite).

In Across The Pond, Terry Eagleton casts a wry professorial eye on the differences between American and English views of how the world works. And in Watching The English, anthropologist Kate Fox uses her professional skills to analyse and try to explain the peculiarities of English behaviour. These subjects are of considerable interest to me. In collaboration with Jane Lindskold, I’ve been noodling away at them for a couple of years now so I was very keen to see what other commentators made of these things.

Both books are very funny and yet at the same time they are very serious. Eagleton records that he had a lot of trouble getting his book published in America because it is quite rude about Americans. It is equally rude about the English, but of course the English like that kind of thing, being quite fascinated by their own shortcomings. Eagleton sums up his own world view quite succinctly in a very English paragraph when he says:

The Irish are funny and friendly. The British are funny but not friendly. The Americans are friendly but not funny. The French are neither funny nor friendly.

(I am reminded of Flanders and Swann: The English, the English, the English are best, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest...)

As an aside, given his observation about the various nationalities, Eagleton also records that there are rumours of the imminent arrival of Irish Pubs in Ireland. Most Irish people regard this as the beginning of the end of the world. One presumes that this concern would not be understood by the French or the Americans.

An American critic complained about Eagleton’s observation that:

If you are trying to pick your way through the traffic on Fifth Avenue with an American graduate student at your side, he is bound to ask you what you think about hermeneutical phenomenology just as a taxi is about to toss both of you over its roof.

He seemed to feel that the sentence had very little basis in fact, which is of course both completely true and also utterly irrelevant. I read that same sentence with unalloyed delight since it contains a much deeper truth than its surface words imply. It’s a very English sentence and it says a lot about English views of the way the world works. It’s also a screamingly funny sentence, as long as you know absolutely nothing whatsoever about hermeneutical phenomenology.

Kate Fox goes into this kind of thing much more deeply and she concludes that the English are actually a very strait-laced people who use many displacement behaviours to cover up their essential embarrassment in all social situations. They use humour to conceal the fact that they are completely inept at all aspects of every day social intercourse. She claims that it is impossible to interact with the English without irony and a certain amount of self deprecation. She records that an Italian friend of her family deeply admired the English and tried very hard to be English. He wore English clothes and was fluent in the language. But he never quite managed to come to grips with this aspect of the English character:

On one occasion, [he] was describing, heatedly and at some length, a ghastly meal he had had at a local restaurant – the food was inedible, the place was disgustingly filthy, the service rude beyond belief, etc., etc. ‘Oh,’ said my father, at the end of the tirade, ‘So, you wouldn’t recommend it, then?’ ‘YOU SEE?’ cried his Italian friend. ‘That’s it! How do you do that? How do you know to do that? How do you know when to do it?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said my father apologetically. ‘I can’t explain. We just do it. It just comes naturally.’

Being an anthropologist, Kate Fox buttressed her observations by conducting experiments in the field. She spent some time deliberately bumping into people to see if they would say “Sorry” despite the fact that they were the bumpee rather than the bumper. Invariably they did...

Watching The English is a fat book full of small print but the pages fly by. It is witty, cogent and sometimes squirmingly apt. You’ll never guess how many times I saw myself being described and pilloried in its pages.

I don’t use my microwave oven very much. Mainly I consider it to be just a convenient mechanism for defrosting frozen stuff and for re-heating already cooked stuff. However it has one indispensible feature – it has a countdown timer buried somewhere in its complicated controls. I use that almost every day in order to keep track of the savoury sauces simmering on the stove.

One day I walked over to the microwave to press the timer button. As my finger floated towards the control panel I noticed that I could no longer see the glowing digits that told the time and which helpfully decreased themselves sequentially when the timer was activated. There was a blob obscuring the digits and several thin wavy lines spread out from it. My first thought was that the glass over the digits was cracked. I diverted my finger from its journey to the timer button and rubbed it across the glass. I couldn’t feel any cracks so I looked a bit more closely and counted very carefully. There were eight thin lines radiating out from the central blob. And now one of them was waving at me...

Oh my goodness.


Robin wandered into the kitchen. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Too overcome for words, I just pointed at the microwave. Robin squatted down and examined it closely. “Well I never,” she said. “There’s a spider trapped behind the glass. It looks like it’s sunbathing in the glow of the clock digits. I wonder how it got there?”

“More to the point, can it get out and start nibbling on whatever I’ve got going round and round in the chamber? I’m not sure I fancy eating spider leftovers for tea.”

“I doubt that,” said Robin. “The chamber is all sealed off. Look how thin the spider is. The poor thing is probably starving to death. There can’t be very much for a spider to eat deep in the bowels of a microwave machine. Can’t you be a good Buddhist and unscrew everything so you can let it out?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not dismantling the microwave just to release a skinny spider. It got itself in there, it can get itself out or die in the attempt.”

“Perhaps it crawled in through one of the ventilation holes in the back when it was a baby,” suggested Robin. “But now it’s grown too big to get out of the holes again.”

“And just what do you suppose it lived on while it was growing so big?” I asked.

“I imagine it probably fed on its brothers and sisters,” said Robin. “It’s very unlikely that it went in there alone. Doubtless it’s an extremely persuasive spider, and it must have convinced its whole family that they would all have a great adventure if they went exploring inside the microwave. And because they all came along, it knew that it would always be home in time for tea. What a cunning spider!”

“Yes,” I said, “now that you come to mention it, I vaguely recall hearing faint screams of agony coming from deep inside the microwave for the last couple of weeks. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Those screams must have been the sound of the spider feeding.”

I decided not to use the microwave timer any more. There’s also a mechanical timer built into the cooker. It’s not as accurate as the timer in the microwave because its cogs are clogged with grease but it will do in an emergency, and there was no doubt in my mind that this was an emergency. I refused to go anywhere near the microwave oven as long as the spider was living in it. I was scared that the microwaves might have given it super powers and that when it saw my finger approaching for a quick poke at the controls it would shatter the glass and come roaring after me, eager to suck the marrow from my bones. No thank you very much.

For the next day or so the spider hung around and bathed in the eerie glow of the clock diodes. Then it crawled back to wherever it had come from and vanished from view deep into the bowels of the machine where presumably it eventually starved to death. It wasn’t long before the faint but unmistakeable smell of rotting spider permeated the kitchen. Robin sniffed appreciatively.

“Are you cooking curry for tea?” she asked.

Ian Tregillis Bitter Seeds Orbit
Ian Tregillis The Coldest War Orbit
Ian Tregillis Necessary Evil Orbit
Tom Piccirilli The Last Kind Words Bantam
Tom Piccirilli The Last Whisper In The Dark Bantam
Gordon R. Dickson The Dragon And The George Del Rey
Algis Budrys Benchmarks Continued (1975-1982) Ansible Press
Algis Budrys Benchmarks Revisited (1983-1986) Ansible Press
Algis Budrys Benchmarks Concluded (1987-1993) Ansible Press
Terry Eagleton Across The Pond Norton
Kate Fox Watching The English Hodder & Stoughton
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