Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (bombulum felinissimus)

Dag Day Afternoon

I looked at the rulers of the universe and the rulers of the universe looked back at me, with disgust and contempt in their eyes.

“I’ve made arrangements for you to go to the vet next week,” I said.

Harpo the Cat, co-ruler of the universe along with his adopted sister Bess, said “What’s the point of that? We don’t need no stinking vet!”

“It’s time for your annual warrant of fitness checkup,” I said. “And you Harpo need to have your dags removed.”

“Oh, no!” said Harpo. He sounded quite horrified. “Not my dags! I spent all winter cultivating those. They’re the best ones I’ve ever had.”

Over the long winter months Harpo’s long black fur had become extraordinarily shaggy, to the extent that it almost dragged along the ground. The fur had matted together into hard, compact lumps that felt quite horrid on the rare occasions that he allowed us close enough to stroke him. There were also many distinctly unsavoury dags clustered thickly around his bottom, to such an extent that we had grown quite used to determining which room he was sleeping in by the intensity of the stench that greeted our nostrils when we walked into it.

“It’s your own fault,” I pointed out. “Robin’s tried to attack some of the worse ones with a pair of scissors, but you simply won’t let her at them. She’s got horrible scars all down her arms where you’ve used your claws and teeth to stop her from de-dagging you.”

“She shouldn’t have the temerity to do that,” said Harpo, grumpily. “I am the ruler of the universe after all. She should have more respect.”

“But you are getting quite smelly,” I pointed out. “If your majesty forbids us from attending to your dags, we’ll just have to get someone else to do it.”

“Humph,” Harpo humphed. And we left it at that for a week.

When the day of the vet appointment dawned, we quickly bundled Bess into her travelling cage. She glared laser beams of hate at us, but we are immune to such things – we laugh at third degree burns from the eyes of felines. Ha, ha! However a crisis threatened when we discovered that Harpo the Cat Who Isn’t Afraid Of Anything Except The Things That He’s Afraid Of Like Vets was nowhere to be found.

“No problem,” said Robin. “I’ll just have a sniff around. He must be in the house somewhere because we locked the cat flap yesterday, so he can’t have run away. You go and get the Harpo gloves while I investigate.”

The Harpo gloves are steel reinforced, leather lined welding gloves that stretch from my hands to my elbows. I use them to protect myself from the deadly weapons that Harpo launches from his fingertips when I try and make him do something he doesn’t want to do. I learned my lesson the hard way. I used to be polydactyl, but Harpo soon cured me of that.

“I’ve found him,” called Robin. I followed the sound of her voice into the room where we keep the deepest and darkest cupboard in the whole world. It is impossible to hide when you have dags – a distinctive aroma was swirling around the cupboard. You could almost see it as well as smell it, and when we looked more closely, there was Harpo scrunched up in the corner with his eyes closed. I manoeuvered him out with my Harpo gloves, plonked him in the travelling cage, and off we went to the vet. Both cats howled miserably all the way.

Bess went first. The vet poked, prodded and weighed her.

"Bess is looking really good," said the vet. "She's pretty much the ideal weight for her size. She's lost a bit of weight since last year."

"That's because we feed her fish," said Robin. "She doesn't approve of fish, so she punishes us by not eating it. Sometimes she doesn't eat for days on end until Harpo has finished all the fish and it's time to eat chicken.”

"That would explain it," said the vet. "I suggest you keep feeding her food that she doesn't like. That way she's likely to live at her ideal weight for years!" He gave Bess a clean bill of health and put her back in her cage ready to go home.

Then it was Harpo’s turn. We decanted him onto the examination table and the vet approached him cautiously.

“Go away,” said Harpo. “Gerroff!”

“Nice dags,” said the vet, wrinkling his nose as the full funky Harpo aroma slithered up his nostrils. “Why don’t you brush him more often? You’re supposed to brush long haired cats, you know.”

Robin pulled up her sleeves, exposing a criss-crossing network of scar tissue running up and down both arms. “I’m running out of flesh to sacrifice,” she said. “Harpo doesn’t like being brushed.”

“Ah,” said the vet, “looks like a general anaesthetic will be required.”

“Bugger off,” said Harpo.

“You can pick him up tomorrow,” said the vet.

The next day, a distinctly subdued and much sweeter smelling Harpo gazed at us from the depths of his cage.

“The dags were the daggiest I’ve ever seen,” said the vet. “I’ve brushed out as much as I could, and I’ve cut off the ones that resisted the brush. I’ve also shaved all around his bottom, so you might find him a little less fragrant from now on.”

Stephen Baxter’s latest novel is called Proxima. It’s set in the not too far distant future. After various political upheavals, the resources of the solar system are divided somewhat unequally between the industrial west and China. China mainly concerns itself with mining the resources of the asteroid belt while the western industrial complexes explore and colonise the inner planets. A few years before the book opens, mysterious energy sources known as kernels had been discovered beneath the surface of Mercury. China has no access to the kernels and is quite miffed about it – the kernels permit fast interplanetary travel and also open up the possibility of interstellar exploration.

A ship full of rejects and criminals from Earth and Mars is sent to a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. They are separated into a number of small groups, scattered around the planet and abandoned to their fate. The groups have no means of communicating with each other or with Earth. It’s never clear (at least to begin with) whether their goal is to colonise the planet or whether they are being observed as part of a cruel sociological experiment, but either way, they are completely isolated and alone.

In the first part of the book we follow the adventures of one of the stranded groups. They name the planet Per Ardua. It is fixed on its rotational axis; half the planet is always dark and the other half always light – this curious situation later has a vital role to play as the complex plot unwinds. Per Ardua is also a very volcanic world, with extreme weather patterns (a bit like New Zealand, really!). The inhabitants are plant-like beings which appear to be constructed of stems, and they occupy all the usual biological niches. At the top of the tree (so to speak) are beings who are clearly sapient, though seemingly not very technologically advanced. While they are clearly aware of the colonists, they don’t really interact with them to any great extent.

The aliens manage and control their environment in quite extraordinary ways – for example, a central obsession of one group of indigenes is to continuously move the lake they live by from one place to another. They construct a clever series of dams and channels that, every so often, gradually shifts the lake to a new location. The Earth colonists, who depend on the lake for water, are forced to become semi-nomadic as they follow it on its strange journey.

The first half of this wonderful novel is a traditional planetary exploration story and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done better. It details the adventures of Yuri Eden, his wife Mardina and a robot observer which they refer to as ColU. (Yuri Eden is not his real name, but we do get some clues as to what his name might be towards the end of the book).

Meanwhile, back on Mercury, something amazing is discovered in one of the places where the kernels are mined (or perhaps harvested might be a better word). To say too much here would be a big spoiler, but suffice it to say that the kernels appear to be able to do more than power interstellar ships. Alien technologies are involved.

The second half of the novel explores the implications of the political (and, to an extent, technological) standoff in the solar system between China and the West. This eventually blows up into a war. Relationships are re-established with Yuri’s group on Per Ardua. Yuri, his wife and his daughter have a vital role to play in the developing situation. The implications of the alien technologies are explored and the novel ends on a truly wonderful cliff hanger that left me gasping for more. I am assured that there will be a sequel.

Proxima is traditional science fiction on the grand scale. It is full of pure sense of wonder, spine-tingling brilliance. Books like this are the reason why we all got addicted to the stuff in the first place. It explores universe-spanning vistas, it’s full of informed and delightful technological speculation, it’s got mysterious alien artefacts, and it’s got vividly drawn characters that the reader really cares about. It’s a masterpiece.

When Stephen King first began to dominate the best seller lists all over the world, one of the books that cemented his reputation was The Shining. Stanley Kubrick turned it into a very successful movie (though interestingly Stephen King did not like the movie very much and always distanced himself from it). Over the years the book has come to be regarded as a classic of its kind. And now, more than three decades later, Stephen King has written a sequel. Dr. Sleep tells us the story of what happened to Danny Torrance, the child hero of The Shining, in his later years...

Danny “shines”. Sometimes he can read other people’s thoughts and sometimes he can see a little bit into the future. It’s a terrible burden to bear and he’s tried to drown it out with alcohol. But now he’s attending AA meetings and keeping himself clean.

Abra Stone is a young girl who shines more brightly than anyone Danny has ever met. He is determined to keep her safe. He knows how dangerous the shining can be.

The True Knot is a group of very long lived travelling folk who have cheated disease and death by feeding on the bright and flaring emotions that those who shine emit when they are tortured to death. They find the death throes of the children who shine to be particularly sweet. Abra shines so brightly that the True Knot just have to seek her out. Abra’s painful and prolonged death will keep them hale and hearty for a long time to come...

Mix all the ingredients together and we have a classic Stephen King horror story – there are elements that will gross you out, there are thoughtful, sometimes philosophical points to be made and there are nasty ideas waiting to sneak up on you and take you by surprise.

Stephen King’s strength has always been his ability to make his characters convincing. Good and bad, sane and insane, you believe in every one of them. His plots tend towards cliché and are often very predictable, but the devil is in the detail and Stephen King is a genius at detail.

He also likes to put little jokes in for those that have eyes to see them. The True Knot first appeared in a very minor role in NOS4R2, a novel by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. Small things like this give a pleasing depth and complexity to the story.

Typically, Dr Sleep is in many ways a routine horror novel. I had absolutely no difficulty at all in anticipating and predicting how the story line would twist and turn. In particular, it was glaringly obvious just who and what Abra Stone would turn out to be.

But none of that really matters. As always with a Stephen King novel, it’s crammed full of edge of the seat, stay up late all night, page turning ickiness. Brilliant!

In 2006, a young writer called Scott Lynch arrived on the scene with a hiss and a roar and gave us all the best fantasy novel we’d read in years. The Lies of Locke Lamora took the world by storm and a few months later he followed it with a sequel that was just as powerful – Red Seas Under Red Skies. And then he fell silent. Years passed. A third volume in the series (tentatively called The Republic of Thieves) was announced, but it never appeared. Amazon was taking pre-orders, but the announced publication date came and went. No book was published and Amazon cancelled the pre-orders. Rinse, lather, repeat. I think I ordered the book at least four times, only to have it vanish underneath me as the publisher withdrew the book yet again. Eventually the publisher announced it one more time, with a publication date of November 2012. I ordered the book one more time (rolling my eyes the while). November 2012 rolled around, but (surprise, surprise) no book appeared.

This time my order was not cancelled, so I lived in hope with my fingers and toes crossed. Eventually, much to my amazement, the book did actually appear on the shelves, though it was October 2013 before this finally happened (what’s almost a year between friends?). I presume the whole fiasco was caused by Scott Lynch missing delivery deadline after delivery deadline after delivery deadline. I have no idea why the publisher let him get away with such appallingly irresponsible behaviour. I always thought that publishers were hard-hearted business people who didn’t allow authors to ignore their contracts in such a cavalier fashion – obviously I was wrong.

Well, was it worth the wait? Sadly, no. The Republic of Thieves is nowhere near as good as its predecessors. It has its moments in the sun, largely in the scenes that are flashbacks to Locke Lamora’s carefree youth, but the story as a whole is really rather dull and predictable. The magic has gone away from the storytelling. If you are familiar with the gentlemen bastards from the earlier novels you’ll probably want to read this one, if only for the sake of completeness. But be prepared to be disappointed as it plods along. If you haven’t read the earlier novels, don’t bother with this one at all – it isn’t a good place to start.

I buy a lot of ebooks these days. However I always make sure that the ebooks I buy are unencumbered with stupid digital rights management copy protection schemes (DRM). Many publishers are now producing ebooks without DRM – Tor (in America) and Macmillan (Tor’s UK offshoot) do this as a matter of policy. However, for mysterious reasons of its own, Amazon tends to stick its own DRM onto these books anyway. They don’t seem to care about the publisher’s policies. I’ve bought several Tor and Macmillan ebooks from Amazon which were DRM protected, contrary to the publisher’s explicit instructions. I complained bitterly about this to all and sundry, but I got absolutely nowhere. Amazon point blank refused to remove the DRM and Tor and Macmillan seemed utterly unable to bring any pressure to bear to force them to do it. Therefore, as a matter of principle, I now refuse to buy Tor and Macmillan ebooks from Amazon – the publisher’s statement in the frontispiece of their publications which says that the book is DRM-free is, quite simply, a bare faced lie. Unfortunately there isn’t anywhere else I can buy the books from since Tor and Macmillan do not have their own ebook store. So I suppose I’m now boycotting Tor and Macmillan until such time as they can get their act together to force Amazon to follow the rules...

What this diatribe is leading up to is that many authors are now starting to sell their books in electronic form from their own websites. Invariably these are DRM free (writers don’t seem to approve of DRM either). Mike Resnick, for example, has made a large number of his books available this way and recently I spent several hundred dollars at his web site topping up my Mike Resnick collection. And now Mike Resnick is several hundred dollars richer than he was before, because of course, he gets all the money from selling these books. There are no middle men to pay off. Why can’t more authors do this?

Among the many books that I bought from him were the Galactic Midway novels and the Velvet Comet novels, and I don’t mind in the slightest that I’ve now bought these stories several times – once or twice as conventional books and now again as ebooks. I’m happy to do this because I think it is very important to support Mike, and any other authors who follow this trail.

The Galactic Midway novels concern the owner of a carnival who discovers that many of the beings in his freak show are actually alien tourists experiencing the delights of Earth. The carnival owner manipulates the situation to his own advantage and ends up taking his carnival on a tour around the universe. The Velvet Comet novels are all set in an intergalactic brothel(!). Both series, as you might expect from Mike Resnick, are light and fluffy and mildly humorous but nevertheless they have their insightful moments. Mike is particularly skillful at characterisation and with only a few well chosen words he can make his characters (both human and alien) seem very real and convincing. This lends even his lightest stories a depth and subtlety that I find particularly pleasing.

I strongly encourage all of you to visit Mike’s website and spend several hundred dollars of your own. Trust me, you won’t regret a cent of it. His web site isn’t hard to find, just type his name into google.

Baen Books is a commercial publisher that also believes in not encumbering their ebooks with DRM. They are quite happy to sell directly from their web site rather than selling via intermediaries like the evil Amazon. While much of their output is Military SF which is of little interest to me, they do have quite a range of older material on which, yet again, I have spent a small fortune. For example, they keep a lot of Keith Laumer books available and I recently bought Imperium and Earthblood and I enjoyed them just as much the second time round as I did when I first read them many, many, many years ago...

Imperium is an omnibus of three early Laumer novels: Worlds Of The Imperium, The Other Side Of Time, and Assignment in Nowhere. Despite the hints in the titles, they are not time travel novels (at least not directly). Rather they are stories of parallel worlds. The novels are more than forty years old, but they still read very well indeed.

The essential idea behind the stories is that there exist many parallel universes. With the right gadgetry, anyone can travel between them. Unfortunately the gadgets can be unstable, and there are many timelines where worlds have been destroyed by the uncontrolled energies that were unleashed. However, in the midst of these ravaged alternate history, there is one world that has managed to tame the energies, and they have a thriving little empire that trades with worlds where the technology was never developed. Our timeline is one of these last, and the first novel concerns what happens to the hero Brion Bayard when he is kidnapped from our world by the Imperium. They have a little problem that they want him to solve...

In the second novel, the Imperium discovers that there are other travellers across the worlds. They are descended from branches of human evolution that were wiped out in the worlds of the imperium. Their technologies are rather more advanced than anything the humans possess. The possibility of war looms large. After that, it gets complicated...

By today’s standards the plots are a little contrived and the characters are rather cardboard. Some of the social and political opinions expressed in the collection are also more than a little dubious to modern (PC) sensibilities. But none of this really matters. The stories just rattle along. The collection is a real page turner!

Earthblood is a novel that Laumer wrote in collaboration with Rosel George Brown. In the far future, Roan Cornay is that very rare thing, a pure blood Terran. He is a test tube baby born from an alien woman, but nevertheless his genetic makeup has been constructed to match that from the lost and mythical planet once known as Earth. Roan is fascinated by tales of his legendary home world and dedicates his efforts into finding it.

It’s hardly an original plot, but the treatment is brilliant. When he wanted to, Laumer could exhibit quite a nice sense of humour. And Rosel George Brown (who died tragically young) was also noted for her humorous slant on things. By collaborating, they somehow make the whole rather greater than the sum of the parts, and as a result, the book is a delight.

Robert Harris’s strength as a novelist has always been in his ability to bring history, and famous people from history, gloriously to life. His latest book is An Officer and a Spy and it tells, in fictional form, the ins and outs of the so-called Dreyfus scandal. The outline of what happened is very well known. In 1895, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer in the French army, was convicted of espionage. He was publically humiliated, stripped of his symbols of rank, and his sword was broken in front of him. He was sent to solitary confinement on Devil's Island. The novelist Émile Zola championed his cause, and Dreyfus was eventually exonerated. He served with distinction throughout the first world war, and ended his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

The outline of the story is common coin – most people are vaguely familiar with it to a greater or lesser extent. There was even a rather crap movie about it made in England in 1931 – I remember watching it on the TV in my childhood and being both puzzled and appalled; the film made a big impression on me. Even as a child I found myself disgusted by the self-serving prejudices it displayed, though I didn’t really understand them of course, being far too young.

Harris’s novel goes deeply behind the scenes of the scandal and lays bare the governmental inefficiency and corruption that motivated the events. He makes it clear that the major reason that Dreyfus was accused and convicted was simply because he was Jewish and therefore he made a convenient scapegoat. The evidence against him was laughably thin and completely unconvincing. Much of the evidence was presented to the court in secret. Dreyfus and his lawyer were not allowed to see the evidence and were, of course, unable to present counter arguments. By any reasonable standard, the verdict and the sentence were demonstrably unsafe, if not downright criminal in themselves. Nevertheless, the verdict stood for many years. Even Zola’s campaign did little to benefit Dreyfus. All it really did was harm Zola’s own reputation. Dreyfus’ eventual rehabilitation owes at least as much to the same general inefficiency and corruption that convicted him in the first place as it does to any real orchestrated campaign.

It’s hard to say that I enjoyed the novel. It isn’t a book made for enjoyment. The story is so dirty, so foul, and so inhumane that you really want to go and take a shower after reading it, just so as to scrub all the nastiness away. On the other hand, it’s very easy to say that I truly admire the book. Harris has done a superlative job of bringing that grubby little bit of history alive and he magnificently explains just why and how the whole nasty episode was allowed to happen in the first place. In that sense, the book is an absolute tour de force.

When I see the name Bill Bryson on the cover of a book, I have to buy it and read it. He’s a brilliant writer, often very witty and sometimes laugh out loud funny. He knows how to present quite complicated situations in an easy to absorb manner. He’s a living spoonful of sugar, and he makes the medicine go down really well.

One Summer – America 1927 has a title that perfectly describes what the book is about. Bryson sets out to explain what was happening in America in 1927, and to put the events into a world wide context. The book entertained, inspired and appalled me in pretty much equal measure.

I must admit, I skipped the sections about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. They were baseball players, the darlings of American sports enthusiasts as they broke record after record. The chapters about them are full of references to them making home runs and stealing second base. I have absolutely no idea what any of those phrases mean (and Bryson doesn’t explain) and so I found the baseball bits incomprehensibly dull.

The rest of the book though was quite fascinating, not to say eye opening. The big hero of the time was Charles Lindbergh, the man who made the first successful transatlantic flight. Bryson devotes a lot of the book to explaining who Lindbergh was, how his personality was ideally suited to the risks involved and just how dangerous it really was to attempt that flight in the first place. The hero worship that Lindbergh basked in was definitely well deserved, though later he blotted his copybook by openly supporting the Nazi party in Germany.

Actually, given the mood of the times, I was rather surprised to learn that Lindbergh’s support of the Nazis counted against him so much. His attitude seemed to reflect the mood of the country quite well. The appallingly overt racism and anti-semitism that dominated American society in those years really horrified me. I always knew that America’s record in this area was nothing to be proud of, but I never realised that it was quite as bad as Bryson reports it to be. And he quotes chapter and verse, which makes it hard to doubt him.

I was also amazed at the sheer incompetence that permeated American officialdom from top to bottom in those years. For example, in the 1920s there were a large number of what these days would be referred to as terrorist attacks. Letter bombs were sent to the offices of prominent officials; bombs were planted and exploded in public buildings and at the private houses of elected officials. Presumably the attacks were politically motivated, and yet no explanation for them was ever found and nobody was ever arrested or even charged. Goodness me...

Even the more mundane crimes were seldom solved. Hardly any murderers were brought to justice in the 1920s; the vast majority of killings remained unsolved. Perhaps that’s why the very few murderers who were actually charged and brought to trial generated such enormous public interest. Bryson entertains us with an account of the arrest, trial and eventual execution of Ruth Snyder and her lover Henry Gray, probably the most inept killers ever to walk the face of the earth. Their murder of Ruth’s husband was so extraordinarily clumsy that even the notoriously brain-dead American police force couldn’t help but figure out who did it. The murder and the trial were headline news for months until Ruth’s eventual execution in January 1928. A rather distubing photograph exists showing Ruth strapped into the electric chair, dying slowly as the current that was killing her ran through her body. The picture was taken with a concealed camera by one of the journalists who witnessed her execution.

I was also quite horrified to discover the extraordinary lengths that American society went to in an effort to preserve its isolationist status quo. Social criticism was suppressed by law to such an extent that people could be (and were) arrested, tried and imprisoned for many years just for saying rude things about American governmental policies at private dinner parties. Again, Bryson quotes chapter and verse. So much for the right of free speech. I find it ironically amusing that the great enemy (Soviet Russia) was doing exactly the same thing to its own citizens at the same time; a parallel that Bryson does not mention. Perhaps he thought it was far too obvious to be worth pursuing.

The big social experiment of the time was, of course, prohibition. Alcohol has many industrial uses as well as being a pleasant social lubricant, so it continued to be manufactured in America even though drinking it was forbidden. The government was very concerned that industrial alcohol might be stolen and sold for consumption so they “denatured” it by adding poisons such as strychnine to it. The architects of prohibition declared quite openly that anybody who drank denatured alcohol obviously deserved to die. So it’s not surprising that it wasn’t long before a lot of Americans did actually die some really rather horrible deaths...

I find it peculiarly repellant to think that any government would be callous enough to deliberately set out to poison its own citizens as a matter of official policy. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what the American government did in 1927. The facts are well documented and quite inarguable.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. America was hugely rich, inflation was zero, there was full employment and luxurious consumer goods were there for the buying. For the average American it was a golden age (though of course it would not last for much longer; the great depression was just around the corner).

There was a totally mad plan afoot to carve the heads of some American presidents into Mount Rushmore. Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were turning boxing into a hugely enthralling sport and it rose to heights that it wouldn’t approach again for more than four decades, when Mohammed Ali briefly revitalised it. America was probably the most literate society in the world – reading was an overwhelmingly popular way of passing the time. The immediacy of radio brought everyday events into each and every American home almost as soon as they happened, and television was just around the corner. The dying days of silent movies produced some of the most spectacularly brilliant films ever made and the arrival of the talkies propelled the movie industry into the stratosphere!

One Summer – America 1927 is a brilliant evocation of an era. Bill Bryson has never done better.

We took Harpo home and let him out of the cage. The fur on his right side was very thin, and pale expanses of skin could be seen between the thin strands of black hair. He was piebald, verging on bald.

“You look like a football player with a comb-over,” I told him. “Don’t go out in the wind!”

“I fart in your general direction,” said Harpo in his best Monty Python voice. The house filled with familiar smells again. Everything was back to normal.

Stephen Baxter Proxima Gollancz
Stephen King Dr. Sleep Hodder & Stoughton
Scott Lynch The Republic of Thieves Gollancz
Mike Resnick Tales of the Galactic Midway Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick Tales of the Velvet Comet Mike Resnick
Keith Laumer Imperium Baen Books
Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown Earthblood Baen Books
Robert Harris An Officer and a Spy Hutchinson
Bill Bryson One Summer – America 1927 Doubleday
Previous Contents Next