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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (pede pila)

Early Morning Logic

3.30am is the very best time of day for cats to have a squalling, hissing, spitting, full volume fight on the bed. The human slaves are deeply asleep and they respond with extremely satisfying noises to their abrupt awakening. With any luck, pillows, lamps and even shoes might get thrown, which can then be chased down, tortured and killed. Also there will inevitably be a lot of flesh on view, and much of it can be bitten.

And that was why I awoke to sensations of extreme pain.

“Ow! Harpo, you bastard! Stop that immediately!”

“I see he still isn't mistaking you for somebody that he likes,” said Robin.

“No. He certainly isn't. How about we give them breakfast so that they will leave us alone?”

“OK,” said Robin. “I'll do it. I need to get up anyway so that I can watch the world cup soccer on the TV.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “But I really can’t understand why you don’t just record the matches that take place in the small hours of the morning. That way you could sleep in, and then watch them at your leisure at a more civilized time of day.”

Robin was shocked. “That will never work,” she explained. “If I watch the match after it’s all over and done with, I won’t be able to affect the outcome by shouting at the screen!”

“Sorry,” I said. “I hadn’t thought of that. You’re absolutely correct. Pay no attention to me.”

“Anyway,” Robin continued, “you are forgetting the reason why we actually went out and bought a device for recording TV programmes in the first place, aren’t you?”

“No,” I said, puzzled. “I don’t think so. Remind me. Why did we buy the recorder?”

“Recording machines watch the television for you,” explained Robin patiently. “They record the programmes, and they watch them all the way through on your behalf. Since the programmes have already been watched, you don’t actually have to watch them yourself at all!

“They really are wonderful time-saving devices. And they even watch the adverts for you, which is extraordinarily helpful because nobody likes watching adverts, of course.”

“Huh?” I found Robin’s reasoning dubious. “So you are telling me that watching a pre-recorded programme is like eating someone else’s left-over food? The food is still nutritious, but nevertheless...”

“That’s right,” said Robin. “I’ve recorded about a hundred hours of Dr. Who programmes, and I haven’t watched any of them. I don’t need to. The recorder watched them all for me.”

“I see,” I said, scratching my head. “At least I think I do. There’s a certain superficial appeal to your thinking on the subject. But nevertheless, I suspect that your logic might be flawed somewhere.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Robin. “It works for me.” She toddled off to feed the cats.

As I lay there, half awake and half asleep, bleeding gently onto the sheets, I could hear vague biscuit rattling noises coming from the kitchen.

“Get a move on!” insisted Harpo. “Gosh, you are so slow!”

“Please – is it my turn for food yet?” asked Bess anxiously.

It wasn’t long before the sounds of happy munching filled the house and Robin came back into the bedroom to report on progress. “I've punished Harpo severely,” she said in deeply satisfied tones.

“What have you done to him?”

“I gave him breakfast in the yellow bowl,” she said. “That'll teach him to wake us up so early in the morning.”

“Indeed it will,” I said. “It was very clever of you to think of such an excruciating punishment at this terrible hour of the day.”

“Thank you,” said Robin, and then she went off to watch the soccer. I lay in bed, wide awake by now, wondering what to do next. Eventually I couldn't stand the mingled sounds of gobbling and goal kicking any more, and so I got up to face the rest of the day. In the kitchen, Harpo was just finishing off the last of the biscuits in his yellow bowl.

“Serves you right,” I said. “You shouldn't have bitten me.”

He looked up from his breakfast. “Bastard!” he muttered.

Meanwhile, Bess took a final swallow from her blue bowl and said, “I'm going to go and snooze in the warm spot that Robin left on the bed. I feel sleepy.”

“OK,” I said. “Sleep tight. Don't let the bugs bite.”

“You killed them all last week,” said Bess, “when you squirted that nasty anti-flea liquid on the back of my neck. I've been really lonely since then. All my best friends died in agony.”


I made some breakfast for myself. No yellow bowls for me because I'm a good boy! I chose a plain white bowl, with a subtle blue ring around the rim. And coffee, also in a plain white mug with a slogan printed on it. “If you want the best seat in the house, you'll have to move the cat.” Obviously the author of this slogan has never met Harpo. Nobody moves Harpo out of the best seat if he doesn't want to be moved. Even the threat of the yellow bowl will generally fail to shift him from his chosen spot, except at meal times.

The rather pompously titled Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better 1948-1988 is the second (and final) volume of William Patterson’s biography of Robert Heinlein. Sadly Patterson died just a few days before it was published.

Like the first volume, it is much more of a hagiography than it is a straight biography. Patterson seems to regard Heinlein as the perfect man and refuses to allow any degree of criticism of his hero at all. The only sources he appears to have consulted in depth are Heinlein’s own letters and the only external viewpoint he pays any really close attention to is that of Heinlein’s third wife Virginia. Even when there are other well documented examples of Heinlein’s flaws, Patterson glosses over them and always paints Saint Bob in the best of all possible lights, without any hint of disapproval. For example Heinlein had a very well-publicised flare up with Arthur C. Clarke over Ronald Reagan’s unutterably stupid strategic defence initiative (nicknamed Star Wars, but officially known as SDI). By all accounts, Heinlein completely lost his temper with Clarke. Patterson, quoting from an article by Jerry Pournelle who was also present at the meeting, maintains that Heinlein remained polite and dignified throughout the encounter. However another friend of Heinlein (G. Harry Stine) is not quoted by Patterson. Probably because when Stine reported on the meeting he said:

...Robert Heinlein lit into him verbally. He just took Arthur apart. And all of us just sat there.

I’ve never seen Arthur defensive. He really just sat there too. He made a few rather semi-defensive comments, but he basically just almost withered from the scathing verbal attack from Heinlein. And after his blistering attack, Heinlein wouldn’t talk to him.

I think what shocked Arthur as it shocked us was the fact that Robert Heinlein did this in public, among his own peers and Arthur’s peers.

Patterson's book is riddled with factual errors and dubious scholarship and it is overstuffed with Patterson’s own somewhat naive political and social opinions, all of which he assumes that Heinlein himself shared. While there may be some small amount of truth in this assumption, it is clear from both this and other sources that Heinlein was a much more subtle man than Patterson paints him to be and I doubt that he saw the world as blackly and as whitely as Patterson does. Like him or loath him, Heinlein had a brain in his head and he thought deeply about things. Patterson, by contrast, is a very shallow thinker and his opinions lack substance. They come across as mere hero-worship rather than being well thought out intellectual positions in their own right.

Many of the irritations of this book derive directly from Patterson’s total ignorance of the world outside of America. Not only is he ignorant of it, he shows little or no interest in even investigating it. Ten seconds with an atlas could have corrected this appalling paragraph:

The Heinleins were finally able to book passage to Brisbane on the northwest coast of Australia... or even Perth in the far south...

(For those of you who do not have access to an atlas, Brisbane is on the northeast coast and Perth is in the far west).

Patterson is also embarrassingly ignorant of the history of his own country, particularly when it impinges on events of huge significance to science fiction in general and to Robert Heinlein in particular. For example, at one point, when discussing the so-called space race between America and the Soviet Union, Patterson says:

It was not until May 1961 that Alan Shepard became the first American to orbit the Earth.


Shepard was certainly the first American in space, but he didn’t orbit the Earth. He took a ballistic flight, straight up and down again. The first American to orbit the Earth was John Glenn in February 1962.

Patterson seems to know little of, and doesn’t much care about, the lives of other SF writers even when they and Heinlein were colleagues. For example, he tells us that Heinlein and his wife Virginia were guests at the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969:

...where they talked with... Arthur C. Clarke and his wife Connie.

At the time Clarke, who was homosexual, was not married. He had been briefly married in 1954 to a woman called Marilyn but they separated after 6 months and were divorced in 1964.

But it is in the field of politics that Patterson’s most egregious ignorance utterly ruins the picture he paints of Robert Heinlein. Patterson quotes Heinlein himself as saying:

I really do not think my own political opinion moved very far either to the right or to the left between now and thirty years ago. I have grown far more experienced, far more knowledgeable, and my opinions have sharpened thereby. But I was an individualist and a democratic constitutionalist then and I am now. I thought Jefferson had just about the right ideas then—and I do now.…

From my point of view what has happened is not that I have moved to the right; it seems to me that both parties have moved steadily to the left—until the [moderate] Republicans… occupied a position somewhat left of center whereas the Democratic Party had moved to the far left.

Patterson goes on to claim that there can be no right wing in American politics because right wing politics imply a monarchy, which is simply not possible in America. This is such an unutterably stupid thing to say that I scarcely know where to begin refuting it...

Presumably, because there can be no right wing in America, all American politics must be left wing by definition – thus giving Heinlein’s political opinions the patina of left of centre respectability that he claimed for himself. Patterson then goes on to endorse Heinlein’s position that the Democratic party has moved to the far left. This despite the fact that outside of America the Democratic party is regarded as very right wing (and the Republican party is regarded as rabidly right wing). By my standards, and by the standards of all other Western democracies, there is no recognisable left wing political movement in America at all. Patterson refuses even to open this can of worms, let alone stir it up to see what crawls out.

The whole thing reaches a laughable extreme as Patterson attempts to justify the huge effort that Robert and Virginia put into supporting Senator Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater was so extremely right wing that he scared even his own Republican party colleagues. I well remember that in England, political commentators of the time claimed that Goldwater “... sees the world through a rose-coloured bomb-sight. ” Patterson’s twists and turns as he attempts to reconcile Heinlein’s support of Goldwater with his own proclaimed left wing/libertarian sympathies are amazing examples of doublethink.

But of course the whole reason for having a biography of Heinlein at all is because of his huge influence on the world of science fiction. However even here Patterson falls down on the job. Because he cannot admit of any flaws in his hero, he lavishes completely uncritical praise on all of Heinlein’s books, even the books that Heinlein wrote towards the end of his life which are generally seen by everyone except Patterson as being greatly inferior to the stunningly brilliant novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Patterson claims virtues for these later novels that no other critic in the world has ever seen or even hinted at. Simply stated, it is embarrassingly obvious that Patterson’s literary opinions are not worth the paper they are printed on.

I think it is clear that Patterson can, by and large, be trusted to report the major facts of Heinlein’s life – at least as far as Heinlein himself saw them. In both volumes of Patterson's biography he has carefully documented these minutiae and they are interesting and sometimes insightful, though not always in the ways that Patterson claims them to be. But Patterson completely falls down on the biographical tasks he has set himself by his utter failure to give any viable interpretation of the facts that he reports. He shows no ability to put the details of Heinlein’s life into any sort of context that makes sense in terms of either the world at large, or the smaller world of art, literature and science fiction. Heinlein deserves much better than this.

From what I have learned about Robert Heinlein, it is clear that if I had ever met the man I would have despised him. But it is important to separate the man from his books. He was a brilliant and very important writer. Even the flawed novels of his late period, with their deeply worrying and extremely creepy themes of incest, have their moments of brilliance. I have read and enjoyed his last novel To Sail Beyond the Sunset twice, and I may well read it again some time soon. Patterson is completely ill-equipped even to begin analysing this most important aspect of Robert Heinlein’s place in the world.

Ultimately, Patterson’s refusal to admit that his idol had flaws, and his own extremely odd and simple-minded views on the world and how it works, greatly detract from this so-called biography. I’m not sorry to have read it, but I am sorry that it is so poor and that it so completely fails to meet its stated objectives.

Harlan Ellison has published a little chapbook called Li’l Harlan and his Sidekick Carl which is the true (ish) story of an incident that happened in Philadelphia in the early eighties where both Harlan himself and Carl Sagan (then at the height of his fame because of the Cosmos television series) had been booked to give presentations at a science fiction convention. Seeking to avoid what they suspected would prove to be a stultifyingly dull dinner organised for them by the convention committee, they ran away and went in search of the best Philly cheesesteak sandwich in town.

What happened next is pure Harlan Ellison – fun, funny, exaggerated out of all recognition but nevertheless wrapped around a kernel of truth. The story is illustrated with cartoons by Gahan Wilson and it is utterly delightful.

But nowhere does this little booklet explain exactly what a Philly cheesesteak sandwich is. So I remain blissfully ignorant. Perhaps it’s just as well...

Starting in 2008, Jo Walton began writing a regular column on the web site of her publisher Tor. In her column she discussed books that had influenced her own reading and writing, concentrating particularly on how she felt about these books when she returned to them in later years to re-read them. And sometimes to read them again and again and again. What Makes This Book So Great is a collection of some of these columns. In them she makes a spirited defence of the pleasures of re-reading as well as giving her opinions on many books both ancient and modern. And along the way she tells a lot of good jokes. What more could anyone want?

The thing that makes What Makes This Book So Great so great is the sheer enthusiasm that Jo Walton brings to her self-imposed task. She is passionate about reading in general as well as about the books she discusses. She herself devours books voraciously (she claims to have read George R. R. Martin’s monumentally massive Game of Thrones series six times!)

She tells us that there are three kinds of people in the world: those who re-read their books, those who don’t re-read because there are just too many books out there in the world begging to be read for the first time, and finally there are those really weird people who simply don’t read at all. She pities this last group. “What do they think about on buses?’’, she asks herself.

This is not a book of criticism or a book of deep analysis. She has a far more important point to make. She tells us, with lots of examples, just what it is that she gets from the act of re-reading. She explains, with examples again, how she often gets something new from each pass through a book. Aspects that she missed the first time round (perhaps because she read too rapidly, hurrying to find out what happened next) assume a far greater importance as a more leisurely re-read consolidates the material.

Sometimes (though not often) she uses the discussion of the books she is re-reading to make a more general point. She has firm ideas about the singularity religion, for example. Just like me she thinks it is a neat idea to explore in fiction but she feels it has little or no relevance to the real world. Much as she enjoys Vernor Vinge’s books, she was somewhat shocked to discover that Vinge appeared actually to believe in all this crazy stuff. She is firmly of the opinion that the singularity zealots have compromised science fiction and held back its development. She makes a good case for this point of view, and again I find that I am in complete agreement with her.

Some of the books she discusses are popular and well known. Some are obscure and little known. But she is so enthusiastic about all of them that I was immediately overwhelmed with an urge to seek them all out, sit down on my sofa with them, cuddle a cat and just wallow in words.

There’s something a little odd about the idea of reading a book that is about reading books. If you want to get even more meta about it, I read many of these articles when they were first published on Tor’s web site, so actually I’m re-reading a book that is about re-reading books! But however you want to think about it, I can state quite firmly that I thoroughly enjoyed (re-)reading Jo Walton’s book of essays.

Ursula le Guin writes deeply serious and thoughtful stories. She also writes deeply serious and thoughtful articles. The major difference between the two is that her articles are often laugh out loud funny as well. The Wave In The Mind is a collection of essays that talk about her personal life and her artistic life. She has thought long and hard and often about the place of writing (and particularly fantasy writing) in the spectrum of art, and she shares her thoughts in these essays. She is firmly convinced that fantasy is just as important a way of looking at the world as is any other and she has no patience with the critics who try and shoe-horn it into the ghetto. With typical humour, she claims that:

Critics and academics have been trying for forty years to bury the greatest work of imaginative fiction in English. They ignore it, they condescend to it, they stand in large groups with their backs to it - because they're afraid of it. They're afraid of dragons. They have Smaugophobia. "Oh those awful Orcs," they bleat, flocking after Edmund Wilson. They know if they acknowledge Tolkien they'll have to admit that fantasy can be literature, and that therefore they'll have to redefine what literature is. And they're too damned lazy to do it.

If you are at all interested in the art and the craft of writing and if you want to know more about who Ursula le Guin is and how she views the bits of her world that overlap with yours, you owe it to yourself to read this wise and witty collection.

Did I actually read any fiction this month, I hear you asking? Well yes, I did. I read the new Stephen King novel, Mr Mercedes. Unlike many of Stephen King’s books, this one has no supernatural or futuristic elements. It’s a perfectly ordinary hard-boiled detective novel about a perfectly ordinary psychotic serial killer, and a perfectly ordinary retired detective who has to track him down before the killings get out of hand.

The story opens with a prologue set in 2009. It is a time of great economic hardship and many people are out of work and desperate. There is a job fair in town, and people have been queuing up all night, waiting for it to open, hoping against hope to score an interview and maybe even a job. In the small hours of the morning, someone drives a luxury Mercedes at high speed into the crown killing 8 people and injuring many more. The newspapers quickly christen the killer Mr Mercedes...

A year passes by. Bill Hodges, the lead investigator into the Mr Mercedes case has totally failed to come up with any clues. It seems that the killer has got away with his terrible crime. Hodges retires and now he spends his time watching daytime TV and regretting his lost opportunities. Sometimes he looks down the barrel of a revolver and wonders about the futility of it all. But then he receives a taunting letter from Mr. Mercedes, a letter that suggests that the killer is now hunting him down! Suddenly Hodges has an interest in life again...

It soon becomes clear to the reader (though not to Hodges) that the killer is a troubled young man named Brady Hartfield who has a rather strange sexual involvement with his alcoholic mother, but who is otherwise a virgin. Killing excites him in a way that nothing else can and he wants to do more of it. Much, much more of it.

And so the stage is set for the hunter and the hunted to circle round each other and bring it all together.

You could easily be forgiven if you yawned all the way through that plot summary. Certainly I did when I read something similar to it in the blurb. There’s absolutely nothing original about any aspect of the story. There’s nothing we haven’t all read a million times before. Every character and every situation is straight out the stock cupboard. Why would you ever want to read a book like that again?

Because it’s by Stephen King, that’s why. This really isn’t a perfectly ordinary story at all and reading it quickly turns into a thrill a minute ride. Somehow, no matter what genre Stephen King turns his word processor to, he always seems to be the master of it right from the word go. It’s been a long time since a story gripped me the way this one does. King really can breathe life into the most unpromising material and I absolutely guarantee you that once you pick this book up you won’t put it down again until you have finished reading it. Trust me – it really is that good.

“You must be blind, ref!” yelled Robin. “Mark him! Mark him! Mark your man! Oh no-o-o-o-o-o! You moron! Shoot! Shoot! Pull his arm off and beat him to death with the soggy end! YES!!!”

Clearly Robin was enjoying the football.

I sipped my coffee and began to think about what to prepare for us to have for dinner. Reflecting on my conversation with Robin about the purpose of TV recorders, I decided that cooking leftovers would probably be a good idea. Deep within myself I discovered a hankering for bubble and squeak. Yum! So that was settled.

All I needed now was a selection of leftovers. I examined the fridge closely, but unfortunately I appeared to have completely run out of leftovers. Oh well, perhaps I could use the extra hours that the cats had given me to make some more.

I set some potatoes to boil and I finely sliced some cabbage which I braised with red onions in olive oil. I put a leg of lamb into the oven to roast. I chopped some carrots and parsnips and added them to the roasting dish.

I checked my bubble and squeak recipes. Several of them called for Brussels sprouts. I decided to pay no attention. Brussels sprouts are not food. Brussels sprouts are the reason why the British won the battle of Waterloo. The battle took place just outside the city of Brussels. What do you think the soldiers loaded their muskets with? Brussels sprouts, of course!

Mushrooms, I decided, would serve very well in place of Brussels sprouts. Magic!

When the potatoes were thoroughly cooked, I mashed them with milk and margarine and then set them aside to cool. I chopped the carrots and parsnips into julienne slices and mixed them with the braised cabbage. I carved the roast lamb. I thinly sliced a selection of mushrooms. I put all these things into separate bowls and I put the bowls into the fridge where they would be safe until dinner time.

So now I had a wonderful selection of leftovers just waiting for me to perform culinary magic with them. When dinner time arrived this evening, it would be really simple to make bubble and squeak.

“Y-e-s-s-s!” yelled Robin. “Two-nil! Two-nil! Take that you bastards! Owwww!!!!”

“What happened?”

“Harpo isn’t a football fan,” explained Robin, “and he brought persuasive arguments to bear requesting me to curb my enthusiasm so that he can indulge himself in a session of postprandial snoozing.”

“You mean he bit you?”

“Well, if you must put it like that... Yes!”

William H. Patterson Jr Robert A. Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century Volume 2:
The Man Who Learned Better 1948-1988
Harlan Ellison Li’l Harlan and his Sidekick Carl Subterranean Press
Jo Walton What Makes This Book So Great Tor
Ursula K. Le Guin The Wave In The Mind Shambhala Publications
Stephen King Mr Mercedes Simon and Schuster
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