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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (magister ludi divinitus)

Look Back In Tranquillity

I'm retired now, but in the days when I was a real person I spent almost twenty five years as a teacher. I like to think that in some ways teaching is a sacred calling – in theory at least, the teacher can have a hugely significant effect on the lives of the people listening to him burble. Which means you really do need to burble responsibly. Most of the time.

I've been very lucky in my educational life. When I was at school I had two truly inspirational teachers, so I do have some sort of a handle on how these things work.

Mr Ludlum taught me mathematics. He's the only maths teacher I ever had who was able to make me understand, appreciate and make significant use of the beauty and elegance that underpins the mathematical world. His passion for the subject, and his constant search for ways of explaining that passion raised my performance as a mathematician from the barely adequate to the really quite good, and it is entirely due to him that I managed to take and pass three quite advanced maths exams in my GCE years. They were, if I recall correctly, Mathematics, Special Mathematics and Advanced Mathematics. I don't think I could get anywhere near a passing mark on any of those exams today – but between the ages of 14 and 18, when I was studying this stuff quite intensively, I knew a lot more than I know now.

Perhaps an example will help to put this in context. There's an excellent science fiction novel called The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle in which the eponymous cloud is discovered flying through interstellar space on a course that will take it close to the Earth. There is some speculation about what the cloud is and why it is heading so directly for us, and the ramifications of those speculations make up the plot of a very thoughtful and entertaining book. At one point a group of astronomers try to make an estimate of just how fast the cloud is moving so as to be able to predict when it will arrive. Calculations are scribbled on the traditional blackboard and a conclusion is reached. In a footnote (so as not to interrupt the flow of the story) we are given the complete mathematical justification for the result. The proof involves a rather elegant application of the differential calculus and, in order to obtain some actual figures to plug into the final equation, an approximation by finite intervals.

I first read this novel at about the age of 14 and the mathematical proof was complete gibberish to me. I re-read the book about five years later and I vividly remember thinking, as I read the proof, “Gosh, that's clever. And it's so simple as well!” The level of understanding that I was able to bring to bear on this example of deductive reasoning is directly due to Mr Ludlum's teaching.

Just today I went back to the book and re-read that proof so as to see how well my understanding had survived the test of time. I won't say the proof has returned to complete gibberish again because it hasn't – but now I only vaguely understand it, and I certainly couldn't reproduce it if asked to in an exam. Unused skills tend to atrophy. What a shame.

The other inspirational teacher in my life was Mr Tennant, who taught me English Language and English Literature – in other words, grammar and books. Yes, in those dim and distant days English Grammar was a formal course of study in its own right. Most people found it dull, and I suspect that even Mr Tennant might have found it dull, but nevertheless somehow he managed to enliven the subject to the extent that I consistently got extraordinarily high marks in the grammar exams. But it was in the teaching of literature that Mr Tennant really shone.

His doctorate was on the novels of Sir Walter Scott. I found this more than a little surprising since to me Scott's novels are among the most boring books ever written. But Mr Tennant was an enthusiast and eventually I did manage to find some small shreds of merit in Ivanhoe...

Mr Tennant was a traditionalist who was highly suspicious of twentieth century literature – he felt that it was too new and the verdict of history was not yet in. Maybe it needed another couple of hundred years or so to mature. Perhaps that was the reason why we studied Dickens for our GCE exams. However despite Mr Tennant's lack of sympathy with twentieth century artistic movements, he did play clarinet in a trad jazz band, so obviously the century wasn't all bad.

I didn't always agree with Mr Tennant's opinions. Where he was content to regard Shakespeare as the only playwright worthy of study, I was much happier with John Osborne and Harold Pinter. We had long discussions about it. These days I'm inclining more towards his point of view – I find Osborne and Pinter shallow where once I thought them profound. Maybe the test of time really is an important one.

We agreed on poetry though. Neither of us had much time for the moderns and though I read Eliot and dipped into Pound, I never really felt comfortable with either of them. And Auden was just incomprehensible. Both of us enjoyed Betjeman, though we agreed that he certainly wasn't a major poet. I suspect that if either of us had known about Philip Larkin we'd have both enjoyed the sardonic humour of his insights as well. But it was long after I left school that I finally discovered Larkin and when I did, I rather regretted no longer being able to discuss him with my favourite English teacher. But in class, we stuck with Browning and Tennyson. They seemed safe (and safely dead).

Mr Tennant always encouraged me to write and he was always kind to my juvenilia. He encouraged me to find my own voice in my prose and to stop imitating the style of whatever novelist it was that I was reading this week. At the time, I wasn't sure what he meant by that remark, but strangely he did always seem to know exactly what books I'd recently got out the library. Personally I just assumed that he did it by using the super powers that he got when he was bitten by a radioactive schoolboy,...

Mr Tennant awakened a life-long love of literature in me. He taught me to understand the internal construction of the sentences that are themselves the building blocks of literature. He taught me rhetoric and dramatic structure, and how to recognise an iambic pentameter when I tripped over it in the dark on my way to the toilet. He convinced me that there can be many different ideas hiding inside the words of even the simplest of sentences. I don't think a day goes past when I don't use something that he taught me and sometimes I still hear his dry, sarcastic voice inside my head. Usually he's saying, “See? I told you you'd find that useful one day!”

A Slip Of The Keyboard is a new collection of essays by Terry Pratchett. The essays are largely autobiographical – he talks about the effect the huge success of the Discworld novels has had on the course of his life, and he moves on from there to discuss his theories about how humour works and how he applies those ideas in his novels. Necessarily the essays get rather grim towards the end of the book as he discusses the consequences of his alzheimers and his support for the right to die with dignity at a time and a place of his own choosing. It's an excellent and very thoughtful collection which you can dip in to at any time, and return to again and again.

James E. Gunn is perhaps better known as a science fiction novelist than he is as a critic. Nevertheless he has made some scholarly contributions to the field. Isaac Asimov – The Foundations of Science Fiction is a critical examination of Asimov's life and work. It was first published by the Oxford University Press in 1982 when Asimov was still alive and still writing and therefore it was, necessarily, incomplete. The new, expanded edition brings the story up to date by adding a close look at the novels and stories that Asimov wrote from 1982 until his death in 1992.

I found Gunn's analysis to be a bit shallow for my taste. He says very little about Asimov's life and work that I didn't already know – after all, Asimov himself published a huge amount of biographical material in which he made some very thoughtful comments about how he saw his own position in the field, and where he felt that his own strengths and weaknesses lay. I always found that Asimov was quite a perceptive critic of his own work, well aware of what he did well and what he did badly. I also enjoyed a very cynical short story that Asimov once wrote about that kind of analysis – William Shakespeare is brought forward in time to the modern day. He attends a college course on the plays of William Shakespeare and fails the final exam. Clearly Asimov was not blind to the perils of critical over-analysis! Given all this material, it's very hard to see how Gunn could have come up with anything original to say, and by and large, he doesn't.

Far too much of Gunn's book concerns itself with page after interminable page of detailed plot synopses of stories that I was already perfectly familiar with. Let's face it, if you aren't already a fan of Asimov's work you probably won't have much motivation to read this book in the first place; and if you are a fan you will already have read the stories again and again and you will know them intimately. In neither case does a hugely detailed plot synopsis add anything to the discussion. All it does is bulk out the pages. I agree that a little bit needs to be said about the plot of any given story, if only to put it in context, but Gunn takes this to extremes and gives so much detail that you almost don't need to read the stories ever again. Just read Gunn's synopsis instead! No, that doesn't really work...

Gunn does analyse the themes that underlie Asimov's fiction and he clearly points out the areas where Asimov truly was a pioneer in the field (the robotics stories for example). He also makes it clear that some of Asimov's most famous stories owe far more to Asimov pandering to his editor John Campbell's prejudices than they do to any particularly original insight on Asimov's part. Not that that makes them any less worthy of course. (Interestingly Asimov himself makes much the same point in his autobiographical musings).

Those with only a nodding acquaintance with Asimov's life and work may well find Gunn's book invaluable. Those with a more thorough knowledge of Asimov's life and work will probably find it of little use.

Max Gladstone has a refreshingly oddball approach to fantasy. Generally speaking, I'm not much of a fantasy fan, but Three Parts Dead has a degree of originality and laid back humour that makes it stand out from the crowd. The only lip service that it pays to the tropes of the genre is that it is the first volume of an open-ended series. Sigh! Oh well, you can't have everything...

Kos, the God of the city of Alt Coulumb is dead. It would seem that he over committed himself. He had contracts with supplicants whose deadlines he could not meet. To begin with at least, it is not clear if he committed suicide because of his guilty conscience or if he was murdered, perhaps by disgruntled sub-contractors...

The city hires the consultancy company of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to investigate the death and possibly to bring Kos back to life. Tara, a new recruit to the company, and Abelard, one of the dead God's acolytes handle the majority of the investigation. And what they uncover is disturbing...

Partly a detective story, partly an exercise in ingenious world building and partly an examination of ethical dilemmas, this is a multi-faceted and very clever story. It has a lot of depth to it. It makes a very refreshing change from the standard extruded fantasy product, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Kim Newman's new novel An English Ghost Story is a little disappointing. The title sums it up perfectly (what you see is what you get) and it follows a fairly classic and formulaic plot. The only thing that might have rescued it from mediocrity would be interesting characters, but even these I found to be a little formulaic as well.

A typical family want to escape from the rat race of the city and so they buy a haunted house deep in the Somerset countryside. The house even has a name – it's called The Hollow. They fall in love with the house and with the peace and harmony that it and its ghosts seem to bring to their lives. But eventually the house turns on them, engendering much conflict that threatens to tear them apart.

Tobias S. Buckell is a new author to me. Crystal Rain is the first novel in the Xenowealth series (oh no! Not again!) and it gripped me right from the first page.

It has to be admitted that a plot summary doesn't do the book much justice. Twenty-seven years before the story opens, John deBrun washed up onto the shore of Nanagada. He has no memory of his past.

As the story opens, the fearsome Azteca come over the Wicked High Mountains, searching for blood and hearts to feed to their gods. Nanagada's only hope lies in a mythical artefact which is hidden somewhere in the frozen north. And, of course, only John deBrun knows the device's secrets, though he can't remember anything about it.

The impressive thing about this novel is not the rather hackneyed story that it tells, rather it is the style, construction and characterisation used to tell it. Nanagada itself only slowly comes into focus – far too often SF novels come complete with massive infodumps that try (usually unsuccessfully) to put the world into some sort of context. Tobias Buckell clearly has no patience with that approach. Nanagada's place in the universe is defined piecemeal and much remains mysterious to the reader (though not to the characters themselves). Details are implied and seldom explained in detail. It is always necessary to read between the lines because that's where all the significant information is hiding. This approach adds a level of verisimilitude to the world building that I found wholly convincing and absorbing.

The characters who act out the surface story are brilliantly drawn, as is the society in which they live. Buckell himself is from the Caribbean and his characters live a very Caribbean lifestyle and speak in a Caribbean patois which, surprisingly, is very easy to follow and which is full of colourful metaphors, similes and names. Nanagadan society is made up of mongoose-men and ragamuffins and other equally fascinating characters. The people and the society immediately come completely to life. As the story progresses, more detail is filled in, and it becomes increasingly clear that the society has degenerated from a highly technical past to a largely non-technical present. Clearly the Nanagadans were once a space faring race and equally clearly, so were their Azteca antagonists.

Buckell himself describes the novel as “Caribbean steampunk”, but I don't think that does it justice. The book is so much greater than the sum of its parts that it isn't at all easy to categorise. But, whatever it is, the book is a damned good example of it!

A Night In The Lonesome October was Roger Zelazny's last novel. The story takes place during the month of October and there is one chapter in the book for every day of the month. Together with a group of friends from all over the world, I've been re-reading the book during October at the rate of one chapter a day on the appropriate day. As I write this, we are only half way through the month so I don't yet know how the story finishes...

The other people who are taking part in this re-reading exercise are very jealous of me. Because New Zealand is the first country in the world to get the new day, I am able to read my chapter long before they can read theirs. They seem to feel that I have an unfair advantage over them, but frankly, I don't care!

The story is told in the first person by Snuff, a watch dog who is a companion to Jack the Ripper. Jack is a player in a game which is also being played by Dracula, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and several other archetypal characters with whom you may or may not be familiar (Larry Talbot, anyone?). The point of the game would seem to be to open up a gateway to let some Lovecraftian monsters through into the world. I wonder if they will succeed?

Each character playing the game has an animal or bird as a familiar, though strangely Larry Talbot doesn't appear to have one – from which I deduce that he is, at times, his own familiar. But that's because I am a mine of trivia and I do actually know who Larry Talbot is...

Much of the narrative consists of Snuff and the other familiars exchanging information with each other – information which may or may not be true and which may or may not be designed to deceive.

It's a satirical novel, a comic novel, light-hearted and serious at one and the same time. That's quite a feat to pull off! Zelazny must have had enormous fun writing it, for in it he indulges his waspish, donnish sense of humour to the full. It's so full of pointed references to SF, Fantasy, Horror and Victorian London that most people (including me) will probably miss at least half of them. Somebody (not me) really should write a concordance to this book explaining every nuance, for there are indeed many, many nuances to explain!

And how can you possibly resist a novel where someone who has a corpse to dispose of gets tired and temporarily abandons it, “...leaving the corpse in a copse.”

In short, it's a truly wonderful book. But since it's by Roger Zelazny, that pretty much goes without saying...

It is clear that truly inspirational teachers have had a profound effect on my life. So now, after nearly quarter of a century of teaching, I start to wonder whether or not I have had a similarly profound effect on any of my students. Well, I do know of a couple of students that I have inspired, and I have indirect, second-hand evidence that there have been others. Mind you, the reverse is also true – twice after introducing myself to the class on Monday morning, I've had students say to me, “Oh! You must be the Alan Robson that [so and so] says such horrible things about!”

Perhaps each of these cancels the others...

Nevertheless the positive examples still stand out. I have a good friend who I don't see nearly enough of these days because we live in different cities. He trained as a librarian, though now he works with computers, mad impetuous fool that he is. He came on one of my courses many years ago and as I recall, we both enjoyed the experience. Recently he was passing through Wellington, so he called round to say hello and during the general chit-chat, he mused about the course that he'd attended lo! These many years ago.

“You know,” he said, “what you taught me about networking in general and TCP/IP in particular was just fantastic. It clarified so many things. Stuff I'd been doing without really knowing why I did it suddenly started to make sense and I've been applying that knowledge almost every day ever since. It's solved so many problems for me and it's got me out of so many holes. I don't know what I'd have done without it.”

I got a warm glow inside. “Have another beer,” I said.

I always enjoy having a friend come on a course, and it's good to think that I've had a positive effect on their career. Mind you, another friend who attended one of my courses is currently in prison, serving a life sentence for murder...

Teaching is an opportunity to give something back to the world. This was brought home to me very strongly once when, quite out of the blue, I got a phone call from one of the Powers That Be. “Alan,” said the voice, “we've had an enquiry about Red Hat Linux training from a seventeen year old. He wants to take the certification exams, but I'm a bit dubious. How can he possibly have the necessary experience when he's so young?”

“Let me talk to him and I'll get back to you,” I said. “What's his phone number?”

I rang him up and we had a long friendly chat. He was extraordinarily knowledgeable and very mature. If I hadn't already known he was seventeen, I'd have assumed he was at least twice that age just on the basis of our phone conversation. Having been a precocious kid myself, I knew exactly how he must be feeling and naturally I was on his side. His physical age was, I felt, a complete irrelevance.

“He needs to come on the course,” I said to the Powers That Be.

“But he's only seventeen...”

“It doesn't matter,” I said. “Trust me, he already knows more than most students who come on these courses. He just needs a little bit of a spit and polish to put what he knows on a more formal basis and fill in some of the gaps. He'll sail through the exams.”


The Powers That Be remained uncertain, but they reluctantly went along with my insistent advice and the course was booked. The student flew up from Christchurch with his parents. He had a week of hard work in front of him and they had a week of shopping! Being only seventeen, he had no money and so his parents were paying the hideously expensive course and exam fees for him. They were happy to do so because, being supportive parents, they wanted to give him every opportunity to get a good start in the career that he so obviously loved. But naturally they were anxious for him, and we had long, private conversations about his progress when he wasn't around.

He found the course hard, but enjoyable. He soaked up information like a sponge and he passed his exams with flying colours. He was thrilled and so was I.

But best of all was the email I got from his parents thanking me for believing in him, and for working so hard with him. That was just wonderful.

After he passed his exams, he applied for (and got) a job as a programmer with Red Hat in America. He used me as a referee. His career was off to a stellar start. To this day, I am fiercely proud of him, and quietly pleased that I gave him his opportunity.

That's the kind of thing that makes teaching worthwhile.

Terry Pratchett A Slip Of The Keyboard Doubleday
James E. Gunn Isaac Asimov – The Foundations of Science Fiction Scarecrow Press
Max Gladstone Three Parts Dead Tor
Kim Newman An English Ghost Story Titan
Tobias S. Buckell Crystal Rain Tor
Roger Zelazny A Night In The Lonesome October Avon
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