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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (Domus Alba Pictura)

Alan and the Painter Man

Before you can sell a house you have to make it look attractive. Nobody wants to live in an ugly dwelling. Extreme cosmetics provide the best solution to the problem. An effective approach generally involves giving the house a fresh coat of paint so that prospective buyers are not immediately repelled by the peeling, grubby and sadly dilapidated face that it shows to the world. Beauty is always skin deep as far as houses are concerned.

The first step in the painting of a house involves the construction of lots of scaffolding. Jimmy the Painter came and drilled large holes in my weatherboard cladding. Then he bolted some rusty pieces of angle iron into them. He laid some long grey planks over the iron frames. Lo and Behold! Scaffolding!

Once the scaffolding was arranged to his satisfaction, Jimmy dressed himself in a Darth Vader costume, plugged his combination ray-gun and water blaster into a convenient power point, and then clambered all over the scaffolding planks, shooting jets of high pressure water at the house as he went. Grimy, dried out sheets of white paint flaked off the walls exposing large swathes of orange clad wood beneath – it would seem that at some time in its long life my house had been much more vivid than it was now. Since the house had been built in the 1960s, perhaps it had once been owned by a hippie. Maybe there were bright, swirling, psychedelic patterns hiding behind the conservative off-white that it now displayed to the world. I got quite excited at the thought and discussed it with Harpo and Bess.

“What's psychedelia?” asked Bess. “Can you eat it?”

The more worldly-wise Harpo took a toke at his catnip mouse. “Groovy, baby,” he said in a mellow tone. “Far out, man.”

The catnip mouse was soon joined by the catnip snake that Harpo keeps for emergencies. “Don't Bogart that join,” said Bess, and then she ruined the moment by bursting into hysterical laughter. Harpo gave her a withering look. “Don't bring me down, man,” he complained in a mellow tone. “That isn't cool.”

When Jimmy's high pressure water reached the window frames it tried hard to insinuate itself inside the house. But I've been on the receiving end of water blasting before and, being wise in the ways of soggy jets, I made sure to block as much of the wetness as I could with large piles of super-absorbent towels. Nevertheless some moisture still got through and I ended the day with dripping towels, damp floors and suspicious wet spots on my trousers. Fortunately, apart from the areas immediately adjacent to Jimmy's Portable Storm, it was a warm and sunny day outside. The water would soon evaporate.

Jimmy de-Darth Vadered himself, emerging pinkly flushed, moist, slightly shrunken and wrinkled from his shell. He packed away his fearsome weapon. “I'll leave the house to dry overnight,” he said. “I'll be back tomorrow to start sanding it down.”

The next day Jimmy arrived with a huge Swiss Army knife that was stuffed full of useful gadgets. Holding it carefully, Jimmy pulled, pushed and wriggled its mechanisms backwards and forwards finally revealing a Tom Swift Atomic Sander, and an ingenious device for de-scaling fish.

He spent an energetic few hours scraping away at the fishiest planks on the house, and then he dressed up in a space suit of heroic proportions so as to protect himself from the dangers of the next stage. He turned on his Atomic Sander and began to smooth down the rough edges on the borders of the old paint patches, generating vast clouds of radioactive dust that settled on him like a second skin. Trees and bushes withered and died for miles in every direction as the evil cloud spread its baleful influences far and wide across the suburb. The maleficent fumes caused serious mutations in the hordes of tusked wetas that lurked in the undergrowth. They grew to ten times their usual size and thundered up and down the street hunting down, killing and eating their natural prey – the roaming herds of harmless, herbivorous courier vans, and stray packs of feral children who were returning home from school.

“I need to go outside,” said Bess at the height of the infestation. “I want to kill one of those science-fictional wetas.”

“You know where the cat flap is,” I said. “You don't need my permission to use it.”

She gave me a “spot the loony” look. “The cat flap's for coming in through,” she said in withering tones. “I need to go out through the people door. Open it for me. Now!”

I opened the front door for her. Jimmy was sitting happily on a plank half way up the left hand wall, giving it a good grind. He looked round curiously as the door opened. Bess took one horrified look at this mid-air monster surrounded by billowing clouds of dust and then she turned tail and fled to the other end of the house where she went outside through the cat flap.

Once Jimmy had finished sanding down the house he went off to a decontamination unit to re-purify himself for the next day's tasks. The enormous tusked wetas followed him hopefully, apart from the one that Bess was munching on. I was glad to see them go. They were not a selling feature.

The house now looked even more hideous than it had when Jimmy first started his massive reconstruction efforts – it was blotchy and freckled and spotty. It appeared to be in the terminal stages of some horrible pox. I was almost ashamed to be seen living in it. Now was obviously the time for a complete cosmetic makeover. I looked forward eagerly to the next stage of the project.

John Scalzi's latest novel Lock In represents a bit of a departure for him. It's not a space opera, it's not military SF, it's not a funny book – it's not a typical Scalzi-themed novel at all. It's a mystery story set in a not very far away future. The basic premise is that a virus has swept over the globe, infecting almost everybody. Most people experience only mild discomfort and quickly recover, but a small number develop more serious meningitis-like symptoms. Even this is not necessarily a problem. Most people who present with these symptoms still manage to make a full recovery. But a small percentage of the more seriously ill people do succumb to the disease, and end up paralysed, locked in to their own bodies, completely unable to move or to speak or to respond to external stimuli in any way at all, while nevertheless remaining fully aware of everything that is going on around them. Only about 1% of the infected people end up being locked in. But this is a world wide pandemic and that 1% represents many, many millions of people. And one of those people is the daughter of the President of the United States...

A huge research effort eventually comes up with two ways of giving the locked in people a mechanism for interacting with the real world again. One is purely technical – a robot-like body into which the personality of the locked in person can be downloaded. The robots are known as “threeps” (read the book to find the derivation of the word – it's a nice joke). The other way is more biologically based. Some of the people infected with the plague who make a full recovery exhibit a changed brain chemistry that gives them the ability to host the personalities of those who are locked in. These people are called “integrators”.

Along side the threeps and integrators, there is also a virtual world (“The Agora”) where the locked in can interact with themselves and others.

One of the more confusing aspects of the opening sections of the novel is that Scalzi talks about, and makes dramatic use of, threeps, integrators and the Agora without ever once defining exactly what they are. This makes many of the early scenes more than a little bewildering. However if you stick with the story, everything eventually does come together and makes sense, but to begin with you really do have to take it all a little bit on trust. Nevertheless, Scalzi knows exactly what he is doing. At all times he remains firmly in control of his material. He never puts a foot wrong and he does not let his readers down. He is very much in favour of “show” rather than “tell” as a story telling technique (something I'm very much in favour of as well) and so he introduces and explains the world of the novel by simply describing what is happening, and letting the readers come to their own conclusions about what it all means, and how it all fits together. This drip-feed technique is actually a very clever way of avoiding the dull infodumps that ruin far too many SF novels, but it does require a bit more of an effort on the part of the reader. I would not be at all surprised to find that some people give up on the book because of the difficulty and confusion of the opening sections. But those who persist and stick with it will be greatly rewarded. This is a clever, richly textured and very subtle book that can be read and re-read on many levels.

On the one hand it's a very nice and fairly traditional murder mystery. On the other hand it's a science fictional dramatisation of the effect of a pandemic; something that crops up as a dire warning in the real world every eighteen months or so, but which hasn't actually happened yet. If and when it ever does, I bet Scalzi's novel will prove to have been visionary. And on the gripping hand, I found the story to be quite horrifying in its ability to describe the awful predicament faced by those who find themselves locked in. In that sense, the novel is a compassionate study of what it really means to be handicapped, and if that doesn't make it relevant to the everyday world, I don't know what does.

Scalzi has surpassed himself with this novel. It stands head and shoulders above the rest of his work. It's the book that turns him from a writer of fluff (entertaining fluff, but fluff nonetheless) into a writer who deserves to be taken seriously. It's the book that turns him from a journeyman into an artist.

Cherie Priest has a new novel. It's called Maplecroft and, annoyingly, it's the start of yet another series. It's a curiously structured book that crosses a very Lovecraftian view of the world with the life and times of the American folk-heroine Lizzie Borden. That in itself counts against the novel – few people outside of America will have any idea who Lizzie Borden was or what she did (or, more accurately, was deemed to have done):

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one

I actually had to look that up. She's not part of my folk tradition and I'd only vaguely heard of her. Certainly I feel no sense of curiosity about her. Nor do I have any great sympathy for her.

Apparently, in 1892 she was tried for the axe murders of her father and her stepmother. She was acquitted by the legal process, but was found guilty in the court of public opinion. She chose to continue living in the community where she had been born and grown up and where (perhaps) she had killed her parents. She was, of course, ostracised and her real life must have been very hard indeed.

Cherie Priest's novel takes up the story a few years after Lizzie's trial and acquittal. Lizzie and her sister Emma continue to live in the family home. Lizzie has developed an interest in the occult and she has amassed a strange library, and she conducts odd experiments in the cellar. Cue Cthulhu, mad Miskatonic professors and similar friends and fiends. Fortunately Lizzie has kept her axe handy...

The story didn't work for me. Lovecraft's rather simple-minded occultism sits uneasily with the historical narrative, and the whole book feels like a jigsaw puzzle that was put together by hammering the pieces until they joined up higgledy piggledy whether they wanted to or not. If you use a big enough hammer (or maybe an axe) you can force anything to fit with anything else, but the joins are always going to show.

Exo is the fourth novel in Steven Gould's Jumper series (if you don't count the novelization of the film, which I don't). It follows straight on from the plot of last year's Impulse and if you haven't read the earlier book you'll be completely lost in this one. Cent is continuing to explore the limits of her teleporting skills by jumping higher and higher into the upper atmosphere. Her ambition is to move out into space, but there are physical limitations to that. If she is going to reach her goal, she will need a space suit, so that she can continue to breathe and so that she can be protected from hard radiation. Fortunately a university department that has been researching the problems involved in building such suits has recently lost its funding, and the head of the project is now out of a job. Cent and her family provide the missing funding and development of the prototype suit continues. Once Cent learns how to teleport herself into space she sets up a very lucrative business for herself by inserting satellites directly into Low Earth Orbit at a tiny fraction of the costs charged by more conventional launch platforms. As a sideline, she also rescues dead satellites and starts to clear the space lanes of the orbiting detritus and debris that decades of earlier missions have left behind themselves. Everybody wins...

There's a really good story hiding somewhere inside this book but unfortunately it's completely overwhelmed by far too much technobabble dialogue and arcane arithmetic calculations. Sometimes I began to suspect that I'd accidentally wandered into an undergraduate engineering course on strengths of materials and principles of design. The infodumps go on and on for tedious page after tedious page. The book is more than 400 pages long and at least 250 of those pages could be ripped out and thrown away without affecting the structure of the story in any significant way at all. If ever there was an archetypal example of the “wiring diagram with dialogue” school of science fiction, this is it. And that's a shame because I've really enjoyed all the previous Jumper novels. But this one was just plain dull.

One of the science fiction clichés with which we tend to indulge ourselves has always been to refer to any gung ho space adventure tale that we happen read as being somewhat akin to the adventures of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. I've never actually read any of the Tom Corbett stories so I never really understood what this reference was all about. But the stories are now (mostly) in the public domain and they can be freely downloaded from Project Gutenberg. I've just read the first one in the series. It's called Stand By For Mars and it was written by the (presumably) pseudonymous Carey Rockwell, with Willy Ley as the accredited science advisor. Rather to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We first meet Tom Corbett, Astro the Venusian and Roger Manning when they start their training at the Space Academy. There are strong resemblances between the scenes set at the academy and the somewhat similar scenes in Robert Heinlein's juvenile novel Space Cadet. This, it seems, was deliberate. Heinlein's novel preceded the Tom Corbett stories and was very popular – indeed I don't think it's ever been out of print. The publishers wanted to build on its success and so they used the same ideas as the starting point for the series. However, in an unusual twist, Roger Manning is presented as a smarmy, stuck-up know it all and bully with a secret agenda all of his own. By no stretch of the imagination can he be considered a hero – indeed his underhand scheming threatens to get Tom, Astro and himself expelled from the Academy. Oh no! Will the series be over before it has truly begun? This conflict is presented very realistically, and it turns out that there are very good reasons for Roger's hostility. It also adds a pleasing three dimensionality to the character development of both Tom and Astro, and I was particularly struck by the realism of Tom's attacks of conscience as he tries hard to live up to the standards he has set himself and refuses to succumb to Roger's bullying tactics.

Anyway, eventually they all manage to graduate and they set out into space to have adventures, still bickering mightily among themselves. After much excitement, they end up marooned on Mars and, with no supplies of food or water, they have to hike from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere else where a settlement and rescue awaits them. The hardships they endure on this expedition eventually force them to overcome their petty irritations with each other and at the end of it, with rescue in sight, they have finally melded into a team; all for one and one for all. The whole thing is very predictable but nevertheless it is oddly satisfying and I had an absolute ball reading it.

By today's standards of knowledge, the science is quite ridiculous. There are canals on Mars and hot, steamy jungles on Venus. But remember, these books date from the early 1950s and by the standards of the time they are actually really rather rigorous. Willy Ley did a very good job indeed as the science advisor.

Many of the stock scenes in the story are also laughable clichés by today's literary standards but again I suspect that is much more a case of familiarity breeding contempt than it is of anything else. The clichés we sneer at now from our contemporary, sophisticated and worldly-wise perspective were once actually rather new and fresh and exciting. Tom Corbett was encountering them for the first time. We are encountering them for the thousandth time. I think it is significant that the Corbett stories themselves have entered the language and have become a yardstick by which we measure others. That is no mean literary feat and it proves that once upon a time they they must have been terribly influential. Perhaps their sparkle has dimmed a little with the years – but there is nothing intrinsically bad about them. As rattling good yarns they remain rattling good yarns. I'm very pleased finally to have made their acquaintance.

Robert McCammon originally made his name as a writer of horror novels that sometimes crossed over into science fiction. I particularly recommend Swan Song (a superb “during and after the apocalypse” novel) and the utterly brilliant Boy's Life. Then he fell silent for many years before re-inventing himself early in the new century with a series of mystery novels set in colonial America and featuring a young man called Matthew Corbett. Queen of Bedlam is the second in this series, but it works perfectly well as a stand alone novel, thank goodness.

It is the year 1702, and Matthew is living in New York. By day he works as a clerk for a lawyer, and by night he dedicates himself to the pursuit of one Eben Ausley, the man who ran the orphanage where Matthew grew up. Matthew is seeking revenge – Ausley's sexual tastes involve the exploitation of young boys and what better source of material than an orphanage? Ausley must have been in a paedophilic version of heaven during those years...

Strangely, Matthew was not himself one of Ausley's victims. Nonetheless he has a burning urge to bring the pervert to justice. It's an uphill struggle though. Matthew's childhood friends who were violated by Ausley are now grown up with lives and careers of their own, and they are reluctant to look back on those evil days. They don't want to testify against Ausley and they don't want the public humiliation that would ensue if they were to admit their part in Ausley's debauchery. It seems that Matthew cannot take the case any further, much to his chagrin.

Meanwhile, a serial killer known as The Masker is terrorizing the dimly lit streets of the city. Reluctantly Matthew puts aside his stalled investigation into Ausley's proclivities and takes up the pursuit of The Masker. The trail leads through the dark underbelly of New York, in bordellos where the rather prudish Matthew learns much to his sexual advantage and the harsh regimes of an insane asylum where the eponymous Queen of Bedlam gives him vital clues. And there's still the matter of Ausley to be concerned with...

It's a rip-roaring and rambunctious novel which, despite its historical setting, has some very modern concerns. McCammon ties these disparate threads together very elegantly and the book is extremely satisfying as a result.

Jimmy came back the following day with a brush and a pot of paint. This was a hopeful sign. Perhaps now we'd see some constructive action to cure my raddled and poxy walls. It would all be down hill from this point onwards.

I was in the kitchen boiling a jug to make myself a coffee when I heard an enormous crash! I raced outside and found Jimmy contemplating the empty space where a major part of his scaffolding had once been.

“What happened?” I asked.

“The long plank across the front of the house snapped in two,” he said. “It was creaking a lot yesterday when I was sitting on it, so this morning I thumped it a bit with a big hammer before I climbed up on it, just to see what would happen. And the plank broke in the middle.”

“Good job it didn't break while you were up on it,” I said, “or I'd be calling an ambulance for you now. The concrete down there is quite hard and unforgiving.”

Jimmy nodded agreement. “Lots of broken bones, I shouldn't wonder,” he said contemplatively.

“Even worse,” I said, “you might have had to stop painting the house.”

“That would indeed have been the worst aspect,” agreed Jimmy. He poked moodily at the two halves of his shattered plank. “Yesterday I had one long plank,” he said. “Now I've got two short planks.”

“Thick as!” I said admiringly.

Jimmy rearranged his scaffolding so as to make the best possible use of his new planking facilities. He opened his tin of paint and stirred it a bit, then he climbed up on the planks and began slapping paint everywhere. The scaffolding bent alarmingly beneath him, but Jimmy didn't seem worried so I went back inside and finished making my coffee.

By the end of the day the lawn was white, and so was some of the house. Jimmy was an enthusiastic, and very efficient, painter. He worked to a simple rule: if it moves, paint it. If it doesn't move, kick it until it does.

As the week progressed, the house grew whiter and shinier. It took on all the airs and graces of a delicate and very pretty lady dressed to the nines and on her way to a formal ball. Jimmy provided her with the final touch of powder and lipstick by giving the window frames a dark blue trim. The job was finished.

The house stood tall and proud and pretty, dominating the street with elegant insouciance. It looked very enticing and pleasing – an attractive house in which to live. I couldn't see any reason for wanting to sell it and move elsewhere.

“You are wrong!” Robin explained firmly. I found myself unable to fault the logic.

John Scalzi Lock In Tor
Cherie Priest Maplecroft Roc
Steven Gould Exo Tor
Carey Rockwell Stand By For Mars Gutenberg
Robert McCammon Queen of Bedlam Pocket
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