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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felix quod move)

The Day Of The Cat Astrophe

“OK Harpo,” said Diane, the Purville Cattery lady, “today's the big day. Today you and Bess are travelling to your new house in the Hawke's Bay. Alan and Robin are waiting for you there.”

“N-o-o-o-o,” howled Harpo. “I don't want to go. I want to stay here at Purrville and have fights.”

“You can't,” explained Diane. “Alan has made all the arrangements and the person from VenturePets has brought your travelling cage. Now be a good boy and get into the cage.”

“N-o-o-o-o,” howled Harpo. “I won't!”

“You will,” said Diane firmly, and she picked him up and poured him into the cage.

“You cheated,” shrieked Harpo, and he hissed and spat.

“OK Bess,” said Diane, “it's your turn now. Be a good girl and get in your travelling cage.”

Bess heaved a deep sigh and got into her cage. She turned around three times to get comfortable and then she fell asleep. That's her favourite mechanism for making the world go away when it all gets far too much for her to bear. Her snores rumbled a deep counterpoint to Harpo's howling as the person from VenturePets carried the cages down the path from the cattery to the van that was waiting to take them to the airport.

Harpo found Wellington airport to be a scary place, full of machines that went ping and stern men in uniforms who checked his shaggy fur for concealed bombs. He didn't like it a bit. “N-o-o-o-o,” he howled and the stern men flinched and covered their ears with their hands. They hurriedly waved him through into the boarding gate. “How did you manage to wave me through?” asked Harpo, intrigued. “Both hands are occupied covering over your ears... Oh well, I think I'll just have another howl. N-o-o-o-o!”

The travelling cages were loaded into the first class hold. There were no windows for the cats to see out of in case they got vertigo and threw up all over the nice clean aeroplane. All the cats could do was peer at each other through the bars on their cages as the plane rumbled down the runway and dragged itself up into the air.

“That's a funny feeling,” said Bess as the G-forces pushed her to the back of the cage. “I wonder what it means?”

“N-o-o-o-o,” shrieked Harpo. “Make it stop.”

Bess went back to sleep.

In the passenger section of the plane, coffee and biscuits were being served. “What's that funny noise?” asked the man in seat 11C.

“I don't know,” said the hostess, “I've never heard anything like that before.”

“Are we going to crash?”

“I'll ask the pilot.” She trotted to the front of the plane and picked up up the phone that connected her to the cockpit. “What's that funny noise? Should I start telling people to brace themselves for an emergency landing?”

“I don't know,” said the pilot. “All my instruments indicate that everything is perfectly fine, but that horrible noise is anything but normal. Are the passengers worried?”

“Yes,” said the hostess.

“OK,” said the pilot, “I'll make a soothing announcement over the intercom.”

There was a click and a hum as the cabin speakers switched on. “Some of you may have noticed a funny noise in the background,” said the pilot. “There's nothing to worry about, it's perfectly normal. We've just got a swollen capacitor in the high gain thermofilament, but we are equipped with four spare thermofilaments that can easily handle the load. So just sit back, relax and enjoy the flight and our special Air New Zealand cabin service.”

“N-o-o-o-o,” howled Harpo.

“This is the purser,” said the purser, as she took over the microphone from the pilot. “In order to take your mind off the horrible noise which we promise is definitely not going to make the aircraft crash and burn up, we will be serving you all a complementary plastic glass half-full of lukewarm orange flavoured sugar water.”

Eventually the plane began its approach to Napier airport. The pressure changes as it lost height made Harpo's ears go pop. This was a new sensation and, just as with all the other new things that had happened to him today, he didn't like it at all. He redoubled his howling. “N-o-o-o-o! N-o-o-o-o!”. The plane made a rather bumpy landing because the pilot was distracted by the noise and he misjudged the landing speed and the angle of the flaps. “N-o-o-o-o!” howled Harpo as the plane taxied to the gate and the passengers prepared to disembark. One and all, they looked relieved to be leaving the scary noise behind.

The VenturePets representative stood by the arrival gate holding a large cardboard sign that said “Harpo and Bess”. Eventually someone brought her the two travelling cages.

“N-o-o-o-o!” howled Harpo as he was handed over to the care of the VenturePets lady. Passengers all over the airport flinched and shrank back in fear as the horrible noise reverberated across the terminal building.

“Come on,” said the lady, “let's go and see Alan and Robin.”


She loaded the cages into her van and drove off towards Havelock North. Bess began to shiver with fear and Harpo continued to howl. “N-o-o-o-o!”

“Calm down,” said the lady soothingly. “Everything's going to be all right.”

She began to sing nursery rhymes in the hope that they would calm Harpo down. Instead, he redoubled his howling. “N-o-o-o-o! N-o-o-o-o!” She sang more loudly, but it didn't help.

Jo Walton's new novel is called The Just City. Never one to sit on her laurels, she has written a book which is not only utterly different from anything she's written before, I suspect it may be utterly different from anything that anybody else has written before either.

The Goddess Athena lives outside of time, and she can see everything that happens up and down the time stream. She has many worshippers, some of whom yearn to live in the kind of society developed by Plato in his dialogues with Socrates – the so-called “Just City” of the title. She brings these worshippers to a volcanic island in the Mediterranean in the remote past, where she intends to perform a social experiment that will bring the Just City to life and that will explore the Platonic ideals. The island itself will not last through the centuries – Athena knows that it will be destroyed by a volcanic eruption before too many years have passed. By the very nature of things her experiment will be short lived, and therefore the fact that she is tampering with known history will not have much effect on future generations. For all practical purposes, the experiment will take place outside of time. The island will only dimly be remembered as Atlantis.

People from all ages, times and places set the framework of the city in place and then they fill it with children who they buy at slave markets throughout the ages. The children will be raised as philosopher kings and will be used to explore the ramifications of Plato's system of education and indoctrination.

The novel could so easily have been a ponderous and preachy tract. It examines the problems inherent in Plato's philosophy and it attempts to provide practical answers to questions that Plato deliberately left vague. How do you cope with people's pre-existing ideas? What should be the proper ratio between children and adults? How do you deal with the fact that somebody has to do the daily tasks that keep life ticking over? And what about the big questions of life, the universe and everything – the morality of slavery, misogyny and political power? How important is individuality and when do the requirements of the state take priority?

But Jo Walton couldn't be ponderous if she tried. The novel never sinks under the weight of its theoretical underpinnings and it never disintegrates into a dry, philosophical textbook. Instead it is full of drama and hope as the students use what they are learning to redefine themselves and their place in the world. The lessons learned in the Just City can be powerful forces for happiness and satisfaction, but they can also feed darker ambitions and desires. Like a snake in Eden, perhaps every utopia contains the seed of a dystopia.

This is social engineering writ large; and all such large scale manipulations are ultimately doomed, even if they do achieve a short term success. Jo Walton is not blind to this and while she demonstrates some sympathy for the mechanisms, she ultimately rejects the paternalism of it. Meanwhile the novel itself tells a coming of age story mingled with meditations on philosophy, history, gender and freedom. I was swept along, happily enjoying the story and then I suddenly realised that along the way I'd learned heaps about philosophy, and that I'd taken part in some actual Socratic dialogues about the ethical basis for society, and guess what? I had a jolly good time doing it!

There will, of course, be two sequels. Damn!

The Whispering Swarm is Michael Moorcock's first new novel for almost a decade. Annoyingly it is (yet again) the first volume of a projected trilogy, but if you can put that to one side, it's actually a pretty good (though very odd) book.

Much of it is semi-autobiographical – the narrator of the story, a certain Michael Moorcock, tells us of his early years growing up in London immediately after the second world war. He writes for, and edits some pulp magazines (Tarzan's Adventures and the like). Eventually he ends up editing an avant-garde magazine called New Worlds and he plays in a rock band called the Deep Fix. He rubs shoulders with many writers who would later become famous names in the science fiction world. Harry Harrison, John Brunner, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham et al. The Michael Moorcock we all know and love from intimate beer fueled sessions in convention bars did all of these things and much more besides.

Curiously, while the Michael Moorcock of the novel does a lot of real name dropping, he also uses pseudonyms to disguise some of the people he discusses – Rex Fisch is obviously Tom Disch, John Slade is equally obviously John Sladek and Polly Zee can be none other than Pamela Zoline. Helena Denham is Hilary Bailey, Moorcock's first wife in the real world as well as in the novel. I have no idea why some characters in the book are “real” and some are pseudonymous, but the guessing game of “spot the famous personality” adds an extra layer of fun to the story.

In his peregrinations through the London of the novel, Michael Moorcock the narrator sometimes finds his way into a forgotten area of the city called Alsacia (or sometimes Alsatia), an enclave or sanctuary where historical and literary characters meet and mingle under the protection of a sacred chalice. At any given time you might find yourself rubbing shoulders with Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the Three Musketeers, Dick Turpin, Jack Shepherd, and Kit Carson. Time and death have no meaning in Alsacia. Moorcock himself (the real one) has remarked in interviews that death is no obstacle and it never prevents him from using the characters that he needs for his story. Moorcock the narrator falls in love with Molly (“Meg”) Midnight and not only does he engage in an adulterous affair with her, he also makes a lot of money writing about her adventures as a highwayman on the steel toby for the pulp magazines of the London he lives in outside the enclave.

Reality (the “real” reality as well as the reality of the novel) is inextricably mixed up with fantasy as Moorcock the narrator fights against the puritans with Prince Rupert and buckles an awful lot of swashes with Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Along the way there is much soul-searching and intense navel-gazing coupled with endless self-analysis. How much this applies to Moorcock the man as opposed to Moorcock the character in the book is impossible to tell, and that, of course, is part of the fascination of this very strange story. Perhaps Moorcock is attempting to justify his life to himself and to us. Or, much more likely, perhaps he's just playing games with us and pulling our legs both metaphorically and physically in order to make us hop more rapidly along that blurred line that sometimes (though not always) separates fact from fiction.

Either way, The Whispering Swarm is a tour de force.

Talking of odd little books, how about Michael Swanwick's The Periodic Table of Science Fiction? It's a collection of 118 very short stories, one for each element in the (real) periodic table. Each tale is inspired by the properties of the element, but the stories are not dry lists of facts, they are indeed proper stories.

The stories were initially commissioned by Eileen Gunn, and Michael Swanwick wrote one a week, every week without fail for 118 weeks. He later claimed that the time pressure “...made the sequence into a kind of performance art, something akin to being a trapeze artist, which is a possibility not normally open to a writer”.

Some stories are whimsical (Vanadium is a couch potato and never dresses in drag) and some are very relevant to the reality we live in – much is made of Lithium being used in the treatment of bi-polar disorder – though even here, Swanwick cannot resist a joke (and a very good one it is too!).

The stories are available as an ebook and they can also be read on the web at:

I've always thought of David Baldacci as a thriller writer whose books are designed to while away long and tedious journeys with a bit of light melodrama. In other words, I considered him to be simultaneously a writer of very thin books (in an intellectual sense), and very fat books (in a physical sense). Of course, I was arguing from ignorance, never having read any of his books. But then, in a moment of idleness, I picked up The Camel Club. Something about the blurb attracted me – four social misfits (the eponymous Camel Club) seek out high level conspiracies in government circles and try to prevent them from happening. It all sounded nicely paranoid and delightfully dumb and I settled back to enjoy a nice light-hearted read.

Well, it turned out I was wrong about David Baldacci. Certainly the book is a thriller, full of melodrama, action and derring do, but it is clear that Baldacci has thought quite carefully about the background to his story and, within the confines of the thriller genre, he has written a rather absorbing and at times quite insightful book.

He begins by assuming, somewhat cynically, that high government officials (particularly those in the intelligence services) are corrupt and self-serving. If they ever had any ideals of public service, they have long since been eroded and now these people are just looking out for number one and enjoying the privileges of power. He also points out that many decisions made by earlier American governments have rebounded upon themselves and can be viewed as direct causes of some of the problems faced by the current American government. He suggests that democracy imposed by the barrel of a gun against the explicit wishes of the people the guns are pointing at is a policy that can never succeed. It is guaranteed to come back and haunt the gun-bearers at some future time.

Being haunted by past decisions is not solely an American problem, of course. Baldacci also points out that the British government was being particularly stupid when it partitioned Mesopotamia into a set of artificial countries each of which contained ethnic, religious and political groups that all hated each other and who mainly just wanted to fight and kill each other.

All this, of course, is pretty straightforward stuff. The British stuff up in the Middle-East has been accepted wisdom in the UK for more than a generation and his other points, while cynical, are not exactly new ideas either. But Baldacci's thinking really proves its worth in the climax of the novel where all the melodramatic plot threads come together, and it turns out that the conspiracy that the Camel Club finds itself involved in has as its goal an intention to persuade the American government to put aside its current policies on the Middle-East and to implement a different set of policies that more accurately reflect the way that part of the world really works (as opposed to the way that the policy wonks seem to think it works). He makes a very persuasive case, and I found myself nodding in agreement – yes, these policies all sound like good ideas. Why has nobody thought of doing this before? Baldacci insists that entrenched business and political interests make it unlikely that these policies would ever be implemented. If they were, some very rich people might end up considerably less rich, and that would never do. Hence the need for a conspiracy of course,

I was impressed with the rigour of the thinking that went into this novel. Yes, it is a thriller and if you just run your eyes across the surface of the words it makes an exciting tale that is ideal for whiling away a long and boring trip. But if you look behind the words, it is anything but shallow. There are interesting speculations hidden behind the action and if you strip away the surface gloss and glitter you will find that the foundations upon which it builds are very firm indeed.

Because Baldacci was a new writer to me, I went looking for information about him after I finished reading the book. I discovered a lot of reviews of The Camel Club and what I found in them disturbed me. Many of the reviews just awarded the book lots of stars and praised its story and its intellectual underpinning, much as I have done. So that was fine – but again and again and again I found reviews that awarded the book only one star (or maybe a very grudging two stars). And in every single case the book was marked down because the political message it preached was unacceptable to the reviewer – the quality of the book itself was never questioned, only the things it had to say.

I find this attitude almost impossible to understand. Why should the sub-text of a novel have anything whatsoever to do with its quality as a work of art? I've read Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers a dozen or more times, and every time I read it I enjoy it all over again. Without a shadow of a doubt, it is one of the world's great books. Yet there is scarcely a sentence in it that I agree with. The opinions expressed by the characters, and the political, social and philosophical points it addresses are all anathema to me and were I to discuss them with someone who tried to defend and justify them I would quickly become apoplectic with rage. Nevertheless Starship Troopers remains a brilliant book and I would never, ever dismiss it because of what it has to say about the way the world works.

But the thing that I found really scary about the one star reviews of The Camel Club was the suggestion that by writing the book, David Baldacci was somehow a traitor to his country, he was being “Un-American” (whatever that might mean). Many reviewers seemed quite horrified that he would dare to criticize American governmental policies at all! Clearly, if you follow this to its logical extremes, all American governments are, by definition, papally infallible even when their decisions directly contradict those of earlier administrations! All governmental decisions are always correct and must never be questioned. It's an example of Orwellian doublethink that really takes my breath away (“We have always been at war with Eastasia”).

Are there really people in the world who think that way? Yes there are – and it is by no means a new phenomenon. In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov tells of a time when he suggested to his history teacher at school that if George Washington had died in battle maybe somebody else would have led the American rebels to victory over the British. Or perhaps there were other generals in the revolutionary army who were wiser and more skilful than Washington, but because they did die in battle, their stars were eclipsed by Washington himself. Asimov records that his history teacher was horrified at this suggestion, and was reduced to tears at the thought. What Asimov was saying amounted to heresy (or at the very least lèse-majesté). Didn't Asimov know that George Washington was a saint, the father of the country? Nobody could possibly have taken his place, it's quite unthinkable... Clearly the habit of putting people and governments on pedestals and accepting what they do quite unconditionally has long been part of the American psyche.

Several reviewers of The Camel Club even went so far as to suggest that Baldacci should be imprisoned for treason, and his book should be withdrawn from circulation. (Book burning, anyone?) Admittedly this extreme opinion was not common, but nevertheless the suggestion was made. And this too I find very, very frightening. It's emotional thinking rather than rational thinking and it derives directly from the pride and patriotism implied by the word Homeland (the psychologists who coined the name of the Department of Homeland Security knew exactly what they were doing). The Homeland must be protected at all costs. Dissent is weakening, and must therefore be suppressed. It seems that the lessons of history are never learned by the new generations. Look at what happened to those countries that once referred to themselves as the Fatherland and the Motherland...

Perhaps all of this is rather too much to read into what is really just another thriller whose political content is actually rather mild when compared to the vituperative criticisms that have been levelled at American policies by a lot of journalists and observers on the ground. Maybe the more rabid reviewers of the book only read fiction – probably journalism and informed commentary passes them by. Really it's just as well. If they get that worked up by a simple tale of melodrama who knows what their reaction might be to a report by the BBC, or by Al Jezeera, or by Le Monde?

And of course, we still have The Camel Club to read. It's a pretty good book.

Meanwhile, Robin and I were waiting nervously for the cats to arrive. We'd spent the morning making the house as cat-attractive as we could. We put biscuits and water in their bowls and set their climbing frames by the windows with the best views. We put fresh litter in their dirt trays. I re-checked the instructions from the vet – keep them indoors for at least two weeks before you let them out so that they get used to the place. If you let them out too soon, they might get scared and go too far and not be able to find their way back again...

“Listen,” said Robin. “Is that our cats?”

Faintly in the distance I could hear “N-o-o-o-o!”. It got louder and louder as the lady carried the cages to out front door. “N-o-o-o-o! N-o-o-o-o!” I didn't wait for her to knock, I opened the door straight away.

“Hello Harpo,” I said. “Hello Bess.”

“Hello,” said Bess. “What's all this then?”

“N-o-o-o-o!” howled Harpo.

We carried the cages into the room where the food bowls were, and we opened the cages. Bess came out straight away and had a quick nibble on some biscuits. She looked around wide-eyed and amazed. “I didn't know there were places like this in the world,” she said. “Neat! What do the rest of the rooms look like?”

Harpo point blank refused to leave his cage. The world was far too frightening to go out into. Eventually we had to turn the cage upside down and shake it hard so that gravity forced him out. He landed on the carpet with thump, gazed around in horror and then fled to the furthest corner. “N-o-o-o-o!”

Bess was obviously frightened by all the strange new geography that she found herself trapped in. But nevertheless there was familiar furniture in the rooms and Robin and I were never far away. By the end of the day, she was starting to settle down a bit and she slept with us on the bed that night.

Harpo, on the other hand, wasn't happy at all. He did eventually make his way into every room in the house, but all he did in them was seek out the safe, dark spaces where he could huddle down out of sight. Unfortunately he was never out of hearing and cries of “N-o-o-o-o!” echoed all over the house.

“Do we really have to keep them both inside for a fortnight?” asked Robin. “I'm not sure my nerves will stand it.”

“It could be an interesting two weeks,” I admitted. “Perhaps we should buy some earplugs?”

“N-o-o-o-o!” howled Harpo.

After a couple of days, Harpo graduated from dark corners to the highest windowsill. He stared mournfully out onto the garden where he could see the shrubbery. It was obviously a fierce and frightening shrubbery because every so often he would howl “N-o-o-o-o!” and jump down from the windowsill to go and shiver in one of his corners again. Hunger and thirst drove him to the food and water bowls, but the wide open spaces of the room were still scary and he was very unhappy exposing himself so much. After a few nibbles and sips he'd slink back to his corner. “N-o-o-o-o!”

“I've had enough of this,” said Robin. “I keep waking up in the night when he howls. I'm exhausted. Let's open a door and put him in the garden. If we're lucky he might run away and hitch-hike back to Wellington.”

“OK,” I said. “But we'll walk round the garden with him just in case. It might reassure him.”

We opened the door closest to his current hiding place. After a few minutes he ventured out into the garden. Immediately he perked up. “Hey! This place is cool! Look at the hedge, and all those leaves. I wonder if there are mice?”

He trotted around the garden and we did our best to keep up with him. He quickly found all the comfy hidey holes and all the best places from which to sneak up on unsuspecting birds. Then he jumped over the fence into next door's garden.

“Ooops!” said Robin. “I wasn't expecting that.”

“I hope he comes home for tea,” I said. “Let's go and see what Bess makes of it all.”

Bess ventured out a few steps on to the deck and looked around in wide-eyed wonder again. “Gosh, the world is big, isn't it?” she said. “I never knew there was so much of it.” A leaf spiralled down from a tree and spooked her. She ran back inside and had a soothing snack.

An hour or so later Harpo swaggered back home, lord of all he surveyed. “Mine!”, he gloated. “All mine! I'm in charge!”

Bess looked at him, amazed. “What's it like out there?” she asked. “Is there much to see and do?”

“Best place ever!” said Harpo. “Go and have a look, you'll like it.”

Bess went out to see what the garden had to offer. She stuck close to the house and refused to go over the fence. She was nervous, but not unhappy. She paused every so often to smell the roses. Then she stretched out on the deck in the sunshine and fell asleep.

“I think she likes it,” I said.

“I think so too,” said Robin. “That's a bit of luck.”

And it was as simple as that. Both cats are now perfectly comfortable and are quite convinced that they've never lived anywhere else, although every so often Harpo does stumble across something new which spooks him all over again and forces him to go and hide in his dark, safe place again. But the difference is that it is now his dark, safe place in his home, so that's OK.

Jo Walton The Just City Tor
Michael Moorcock The Whispering Swarm Tor
Michael Swanwick The Periodic Table of Science Fiction
David Baldacci The Camel Club Warner Books
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