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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (ruptor ululator)

Alarums and Excursions

It’s never a good sign when the phone summons you in the small hours of the morning. Invariably the news is bad. I struggled sleepily awake as my cell phone yodelled at me from across the room. What mad impulse had made me choose that particular sound as a ringtone?

“What’s that noise?” grumbled Robin whose rage at being awakened prematurely is often homicidal.

“Someone’s sent me a text message,” I said. “It’s probably important, considering what time it is. I’d better check.” I hauled myself out of bed.

“Where are you going?” grumbled Harpo the Cat whose rage at being awakened prematurely is always homicidal.

“Just checking my phone,” I told him. “Stay awake and watch.” Being a disobedient cat, he immediately went back to sleep.

My phone sat glowing smugly on top of the chest of drawers. I staggered towards it through the deep darkness of the bedroom and opened the cover. I was nearly blinded by the explosion of light from the screen. Squinting carefully, I determined that yes – there really was a text message. I opened it up.

It was an automated message from my burglar alarm which had noticed that its back up battery was pretty much dead. The battery was refusing to charge itself up any more and the alarm was now very concerned that it would no longer be able to protect me in the event of a power cut. The alarm felt that it was very important to let me know all this while the facts were fresh in its mind.

I went out into the hall and checked the panel on the alarm. Sure enough, a red light glowed at me. I pressed a button and a different light started to flash. I checked the manual and learned that the flashing light did indeed mean that the battery power was too low. It seemed that the alarm had good reason to be concerned. But did it really have to send me a text message at such an ungodly hour?

“You could have waited until a more civilised time,” I told it.

“Sorry,” said the burglar alarm, “but I felt quite strongly that I should let you know as soon as I detected the problem. I’ll try and do better in future.”

“See that you do,” I said and I went back to bed. Robin and Harpo were fast asleep. Harpo was sprawled all over the space I’d left and there was no room in the bed for me. I was far too scared of him to wake him up again, so I pushed Robin to one side and clambered back under the sheets.

“Grrrruuummmmmmpppppphhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!”, said Robin as she turned over.

“Quite right too,” I said.

An hour later my phone yodelled at me again, dragging me out of a delicious dream that seemed to involve naked nuns covered from head to toe in curry sauce. Hot stuff!

This time the message from the burglar alarm told me that the back up battery was now completely flat. If there was a power cut, my home would immediately be invaded by all the burglars in Wellington and the alarm wouldn't be able to do anything about it. This being a less than optimum situation, the alarm recommended that I take immediate steps to get the battery replaced.

“How am I supposed to do that at 3.00am?” I asked it.

“Not my problem, squire,” said the burglar alarm smugly. “I’m just reporting the facts.” I went back to bed and the rest of the night passed silently.

Ann Leckie's first novel Ancillary Justice has swept the board for awards this year. It won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Clarke (and probably some others as well). And the fact that this is her first novel makes the feat even more impressive.

The novel is a space opera narrated by Breq, an ancillary of the spaceship Justice of Toren. An ancillary is a multiple personality – the spaceships are controlled by artificial intelligences which house fragments of themselves in specially modified human bodies. Therefore Breq is at one and the same time, the spaceship itself and all twenty of the ancillaries that the ship maintains. The scenes told from Breq's point of view are sometimes quite disorienting because of the multiple viewpoints that might be invoked.

A curious conceit of the novel is that the language Breq speaks does not distinguish people by gender – all personal pronouns are gender neutral. Leckie indicates this by referring to all the characters in the novel as “she” when Breq is speaking her native language. However when Breq has to speak other languages that do distinguish gender, the prose can get quite disconcerting for the reader as characters appear to switch gender back and forth paragraph by paragraph. It doesn't help that Breq finds gender-specific languages confusing, and sometimes he gets the gender wrong as well! She always feels more comfortable with her own language, but sometimes the reader doesn't...

There are two story threads – in the present, Breq is the only survivor of the destruction of Justice of Toren. She is on a quest for justice for the destruction of the ship and of all her personalities. Interspersed with this narrative are threads from the past which talk about Breq's life as part of Justice of Toren.

I have mixed feelings about the book. It is obviously pushing the buttons of a lot of people. It could not have won so many awards without having a lot of virtues. But nevertheless I found it to be rather simple-minded, perhaps even naive in its world building and characterisation. I struggled through it, but I didn't really enjoy it and I doubt that I will read the sequels that are due to be published over the next year or so.

The book accepts all the clichés of a typical space opera. Empires are evil, and empires with warp drives will enslave all the people on all the planets they absorb into the empire. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are fearsome weapons and hi-tech body armour (which may or may not protect the wearer from some of the fearsome weapons – this is a vital plot point). Leckie tries to introduce subtlety by playing with gender ideas and speculating about the development of artificial intelligences and alien societies. But it's all surface glitter, the only hint of depth coming from the rather arch writing style. But once you pull the sentences apart and look behind the meaning, there really isn't any inventiveness at all; it's all very common coin. A triumph (if that's the word I'm looking for) of style over content.

Gardner Dozois has been publishing his selections of the year's best SF for thirty one years. The book has become the standard summation and definition of the state of the field. He selects from strength and the book is always worth reading.

One of the stronger stories in this year's collection is by Jay Lake. It is called Rock of Ages and it tells the tale of an environmental future where various schismatic green parties fight among themselves. The viewpoint character is puzzled by the spread of a series of plagues that seem to have been targeted (perhaps deliberately) at specific genetic groups. The plagues come and go mysteriously and there is no obvious vector. It seems that the “hard greens” might have a rather nasty agenda...

This was the first thing I had ever read by Jay Lake and I enjoyed the story so much that I decided I needed to read more of his work. So I picked up a novel called Green thinking, on the basis of the title, that it would tell me more about the scenario postulated in Rock Of Ages. However it quickly became clear that novel had no connection whatsoever with with the short story. In fact it was a fantasy novel rather than an environmental story. Nevertheless, I kept reading and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I intend to read a lot more of Jay Lake's stories now that I have discovered him. In a very real sense though, I have come to him far too late, for Jay Lake died earlier this year at a tragically young age.

We first meet the viewpoint character of the novel as a three year old girl. She lives in a small farming community but being only three, she has little understanding of where and what she is. But she is a happy child. However the idyll is shattered forever when her father sells her to a man who takes her across the sea to Copper Downs. She is held in isolation, seeing only her tutors who are distant and cruel. She is taught the arts of a lady and it is clear to the reader (though not at first to her) that she is being trained to be a courtesan. The Factor who is in charge of her names her Emerald, but she thinks of herself as Green.

Things come to a head when Green is given a task to aid a conspiracy that seeks to overthrow the Duke of Copper Downs. The duke has ruled for hundreds of years and under his immortal reign the gods have vanished and the place has stagnated.

Once the conspiracy succeeds, Green has to flee from Copper Downs for there is a price on her head. She returns to the land of her birth, seeking herself there, attempting to define her place in the world. From there she travels to other places, learning useful skills as she goes and eventually she returns to Copper Downs for the final climactic scenes of the novel.

It all sounds fairly commonplace but actually it isn't. The writing is very skilful and Green herself is brilliantly portrayed. I followed her adventures with bated breath and I thrilled to her triumphs and squirmed at her tragedies. The prose is gorgeous – melancholic and languid (particularly in the first third of the book, during her training sequences) and even as the action peaks there remains a haunting pining for the things that Green has lost. Jay Lake was a master stylist. He hooked me immediately and drew me deep into his world. There are two sequels to Green and I intend to read them both.

Paw and Order is the seventh novel in the Chet and Bernie series. I really can't decide whether or not the books are SF (or at least fantasy). They describe themselves as private detective novels and certainly that's exactly what they are. Bernie Little runs a detective agency together with his partner Chet. However Chet is a dog and the novels are all narrated in the first person by Chet. Being a dog, he doesn't understand anything at all about the cases that he and Bernie investigate. Everything is filtered through Chet's doggie perceptions which, of course, largely revolve around eating, chasing stuff, eating, biting stuff, eating, peeing, pooing, eating and having his tummy rubbed and his ears scratched. Nevertheless the reader is never in any doubt about what is going on even though Chet hasn't got a clue. If you've ever lived with a dog, you'll realise just how accurately Quinn describes the world according to Chet. That's a stunningly clever feat of writing, and Quinn pulls it off brilliantly in book after book. I highly recommend this series of novels.

Abattoir Blues is Peter Robinson's 22nd novel about Inspector Banks. It all starts with a stolen tractor – hardly a major crime and hardly something that Banks would normally bother himself with. But he's just come back from holiday, there isn't much on his plate at the moment, so he starts to look into the case. Then a man walking his dog discovers what looks like a murder scene at an old, abandoned air-force hangar. There are blood stains on the concrete floor, but no sign of a corpse.

A truck carrying animal carcasses to the district incinerator crashes in very bad weather, killing the driver and scattering his cargo far and wide. And one of the carcasses on its way to the incinerator is human. The body has had its head and limbs removed and the torso has been cleaved into two parts, vertically from the neck to the waist. Banks doesn't believe in coincidence – presumably the corpse has come from the old hangar. And the hangar itself is so isolated that it would be perfect for storing stolen farm equipment that can be smuggled overseas to lucrative markets in eastern Europe. Everything's connected...

The strength of this series of novels lies not so much in the plot (though the plots are always strong), but in the extraordinarily vivid characterisations. But of course, if you've read the earlier novels, you'll know this already and you'll be eager to read the latest installment. If you haven't read the earlier novels, it doesn't matter. They all stand alone. There are references to past events but they are there mainly to give the fans a little frisson of recognition. The author doesn't dwell on them and they don't interrupt the narrative flow at all.

In the morning, when the streets were nicely aired, I rang the burglar alarm company and explained the problem to a nice lady.

“When did all this happen?” she asked.

I explained about my rude awakening.

“Oh good,” she said. “It's a relatively recent event then. I presume the alarm hasn't started an incessant beeping yet?”

“No,” I said. “I didn't know they did that.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “If the battery stays flat for more than a couple of days the alarm starts beeping and beeping and beeping and beeping and beeping...”

“No, nothing like that has happened,” I said, interrupting her incessant beeping.

“Good,” she said. “I suggest you get the battery replaced as soon as you can, before the beeping starts. I can make an appointment for a technician to come and do it – he's got a free slot in about six months. Oh, by the way, there's a $90 call out fee, and the technician charges $40 for every fifteen minutes he's on site. And then there's the cost of the materials as well. But the good news is that he usually manages to get a job like this done within the first fifteen minutes. It's rare for battery replacements to drag on into the second charging period.”

“That's a lot of money,” I said, somewhat shocked by the fees. “And it's rather a long time to wait. Surely I'll be enduring incessant beeping long before the technician arrives?”

“Probably you will,” said the nice lady. “And you're right, it is a lot of money. Personally, I'd call a local electrician. They'll do the job for you for a fraction of the cost.”

“That's good advice,” I said. “I think I'll take it.” And I did...

I rang the local electrician. He was very helpful. “My man Steve's in your area at the moment,” he said. “I'll pass your details on to him and maybe he'll be able to fit you in.”

I rang off. About five minutes later the phone rang.

“Hi, this is Steve,” said Steve. “I'll be there in abut 10 minutes, if that's OK?”

“Perfect,” I said. “See you soon.”

Steve arrived with a replacement battery and a belt full of tools. “These things usually need replacing every five years or so,” he said. “When did you last have it done?”

“I've never had it done,” I said. “I didn't know I had to.”

“How long have you had the alarm?” he asked.

“About fifteen years.”

Steve was impressed. “Must have been a really good battery,” he mused. He examined the burglar alarm box carefully. “Hmm,” he said thoughtfully. “There's an anti-tamper device attached to it. So when I open the box up, the alarm will go off. Can you stand by the control panel and type your code in to turn it off again?”

“OK,” I said.

Steve clamped a huge pair of ear mufflers on to his head and went to work on the box. Sirens shrieked. “Help!” yelled the alarm. “Burglars! Rape! Robbery and Pillage!”

“Oh, shut up,” I said as I tapped in my magic number. Obediently the alarm fell silent. And then, mirabile dictu, all its lights went off and it lapsed into unconsciousness.

“Have you disconnected the power?” I asked Steve.

“Yes,” he said. “I've pulled its fuse off. It won't give us any trouble now.”

It took Steve about five minutes to replace the battery and put the fuse back in. The alarm woke up and immediately became alarmed. “Oh, no! I've been interfered with!”

It began shrieking complaints again, so, once more, I keyed in the magic number to shut it up. Sullenly, it flashed a red light at me. “It's still complaining that its battery is in trouble,” I said to Steve.

“And I've forgotten what time it is,” interrupted the alarm. “You pulled my fuse out and made my clock stop. It's flashing 00:00 at me and I don't like it. It's very upsetting.”

“Where does it say that?” I asked. “I can't see anything.”

“Reality is all in the mind,” explained the alarm. “It's a private thing...”

“Don't go getting philosophical on me,” I said. I entered the current time into the keypad. “Phew! That's a relief,” said the alarm. “You've no idea how disorienting it is when you don't know the time. It always makes me want to start shrieking.”

“Don't do that,” I said. “Now, tell me what's up with your battery.”

“Dunno, squire,” said the alarm, and it flashed a sullen light.

“Funny about that battery,” said Steve. “I think it's brand new. But on the other hand, it was just sitting there on the bench when I swung by the workshop to pick it up. I'll see if I can lay my hands on another one, just in case.”

About two hours later, the alarm sent me another text message.

“Whoopee!! Just in case you hadn't noticed. My battery is now fully charged.”

I checked, and the sullen red light had gone out all by itself. I rang Steve and gave him the good news. “Oh good,” he said. “Obviously the battery wasn't quite fully charged when I picked it up. I'll cancel the order for a new one.”

“Thanks,” I said.

The alarm said, “I feel a lot better now that everything's back to normal.”

“Let's hope you stay that way,” I said. “I don't want any more rude awakenings in the small hours of the morning just because you feel a little bit off colour.”

“But that's my job!” The alarm sounded defensive. “I have to keep you informed about everything that's going on in the house.”

“I only need to know about important things,” I told it. “I don't need to know about trivialities.”

“I'm only a burglar alarm,” it said. “How am I supposed to know what's important and what isn't?”

“If it doesn't require you to turn your siren on and start shrieking then it isn't important,” I explained, “so you don't have to tell me about it in the small hours of the morning. You can wait until a more civilised time.”

“Quite frankly I'd rather just shriek,” said the alarm. “Nothing like a good shriek to get the cobwebs out of the siren. Everyone needs a good shriek now and then. Perhaps I'll start doing that instead of just sending you a text message. That way everyone in the whole street will know that something's wrong and they'll all rally round to help you. Won't that be wonderful?”

“If you start doing that I'll replace you with a more cooperative device,” I threatened.

The alarm didn't say anything, but a few seconds later my phone yodelled at me. I checked the text message.

“OK. You win.”

Ann Leckie Ancillary Justice Orbit
Gardner Dozois The Year's Best SF 31 St. Martin's Press
Jay Lake Green Tor
Spencer Quinn Paw and Order Atria Press
Peter Robinson Abattoir Blues Hodder & Stoughton
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