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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (via sanctissima)

A Road By Any Other Name...

Robin and I live in a village called Havelock North. While it is largely self-sufficient, the fact remains that sometimes we need to do things that require the facilities of a larger town. The closest such town is Hastings. Periodically Robin and I drive there. Robin sits in the front passenger seat with a map and does her word perfect imitation of a GPS system.

Eventually the GPS tells me to, “Turn left onto Saint Aubyn Street.”

I turn left. Sometimes after I've turned left the GPS says, “No. The other left...”

“Sorry. I don't do geography very well...”

Once we get ourselves sorted out, we drive along Saint Aubyn Street. Every so often we pass a sign that identifies the street. In order to keep the signs small and thereby reduce the construction expenses to an absolute minimum, the signs all say: St. Aubyn St. This looks nicely symmetric to the eyeballs but it is rather confusing to the brain since the same abbreviation (St.) has two completely different meanings in the phrase as written. We both find this highly amusing and, just for fun, we have decided deliberately to mispronounce it.

“Which way shall I drive today?” I ask the GPS.

“Turn left onto Street Aubyn Saint,” says the GPS.

Or, to be more accurate, the GPS tries to say that. It has proved to be a surprisingly difficult thing to say and again and again the GPS finds herself saying “Saint Aubyn Street” instead.

Sometimes Robin drives us to Hastings and then, of course, it becomes my turn to be the GPS and I have to say, “Turn left onto Street Aubyn Saint.” Not surprisingly, just like Robin, I have enormous difficulty stringing those odd syllables together. There seems to be something hard wired into both of us that requires that all the things we drive or walk along should always be called a Road (Rd), a Lane (Ln), an Avenue (Ave), a Boulevard (Blvd), a Drive (Dr), a Street (St) or a Mews (Mews). Or , in the case of the cul de sac that we actually live in, a Place (Pl). Our brains insists that Street Aubyn Saint is a completely forbidden combination for the name of a drivable surface. Our speech centres just know that it's wrong and they lock themselves down rather than let such an abomination slip past them, thus rendering us briefly mute.

I find myself puzzled by the plethora of names we give to the things we walk and drive along. Just what is it that distinguishes a Street from an Avenue, an Avenue from a Road, or a Lane from any other descriptive suffix? The designations all seem to be applied rather arbitrarily. The interwebs are no help here. They give a lot of definitions of the various terms, many of which, not surprisingly, contradict each other. From this I can only conclude that, for all practical purposes, the terms really are synonyms. However that does not mean that they can be used interchangeably – the names are assigned arbitrarily, but once assigned, they are fixed forever. Therefore it is more than likely that in any given town (or city) you will find that XXX Road is on the opposite side of the city (or town) to XXX Street and that XXX Avenue is nowhere near either of the other two! And let's not talk about XXX Lane...

“What about XXX Lane?”

“I told you that we're not going to talk about XXX Lane!”

“Sorry. I wasn't paying attention...”

Many Americans (at least, those who are fortunate enough to live in a well planned city) are actually much more sensible than the rest of us when it comes to naming these things. Cities such as New York and Washington D. C. try very hard to impose some sort of order on the chaos. These two cities are both laid out on a rectangular grid. In New York,the rules require that all the roads running east-west must be called Streets and the roads that run north-south must be called Avenues.Washington D. C.has a similar scheme though there the roads are all Streets with numbered Streets running north-south and lettered Streets running east-west. Avenues run diagonally and are named after states (thus Pennsylvania Avenue where the White House squats in solitary splendour). However I am told by people who have lived in those places that chaos descends again once you move away from the central city. And of course there are quite a lot of American cities (Albuquerque springs to mind) that like topsy, just grew when nobody was looking. So the solution is patchily implemented at best and is not ideal.

People who have grown up with the regularity of these kind of schemes generally have no real difficulty orienting themselves to the cardinal points of the compass and, of course, they seldom get lost. Unfortunately, this geometrical symmetry encourages the assumption that if you walk up any given street and take the first left turn and then do it again and then do it one more time, you will end up back where you started. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make if the roads really are laid out on a rectangular grid. But if you try taking three left turns in succession in most European cities (or in Albuquerque) you will generally find yourself miles away from your starting point since very few of these places are laid out on a grid. The roads, streets and avenues just wander randomly all over the place as the whim takes them, and almost nobody can tell you which direction is North...

As it happens, Hastings itself is actually laid out on a rectangular grid and consequently three left turns in succession will indeed put you back to where you started. However there are no nomenclature rules relating the names to the direction of travel, and therefore the Streets run both north-south and also east-west. Consequently it is unwise to use street names as a clue to the compass rose. Street Aubyn Saint itself runs east-west and intersects with a multitude of north-south saints – Market Saint, King Saint, Queen Saint, Nelson Saint...

Once Street Aubyn Saint reaches the boundaries of Hastings proper, the fun continues unabated. The main street that runs right through the centre of of the city is actually Heretaunga Street (or Saint, if you prefer). Despite it being the main street that goes from one side of the city to the other, you can't actually drive down it to get all the way across because, right in the heart of the city, somebody has plonked a pedestrian precinct down on to Heretaunga Street and all motorised traffic must therefore screech to a halt upon reaching it.Heretaunga Street itself does continue to run through the town on the other side of the precinct, and as the frustrated drivers peer through the fog of random pedestrians, it beckons temptingly.

There is no immediately obvious way to bypass the precinct once you reach it. But a study of the map quickly makes it clear that detours do exist. Street Aubyn Saint is particularly useful for this purpose...

Hastings also takes advantage of the best of all nomenclatural worlds by having another major thoroughfare which rejoices in the name Avenue Road. I've searched all the map indexes, and unfortunately there does not appear to be a corresponding Road Avenue, a Street Road, an Avenue Street or any other interesting combination of suffix names. Pity really. Nevertheless, I remain very fond of Avenue Road.

When I was young there was a fashion for “after the disaster” novels. The genre seemed to be a particularly English obsession – John Wyndham and John Christopher both specialised in the form. Even Brian Aldiss played with it a little bit. But the very best of the of these novels was written by an American author. The book was Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. It stood head and shoulders above the competition and it has been regarded as the definitive and classic novel of the genre ever since it first appeared.

Well, I've just read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and for the first time ever I think that Earth Abides now has some serious competition.

The disaster in Station Eleven is a flu pandemic; a strain so virulent that 99% of people die within days of being infected. We all know how the scenario would proceed in a standard take on the trope. Death and destruction all around, small groups of survivors that organise themselves into paranoid, highly armed enclaves that positively discourage visitors; danger, death and destruction on the open road as our heroes struggle to survive. But that is not how Station Eleven is constructed.

The story alternates between the days immediately preceding the flu outbreak and twenty years after the collapse of society, when the world has settled down again and the immediate problems of survival have been solved. The author only hints at the terrible destruction that occurred during the early years of the pandemic and we see very little detail from that time – just enough to give a taste of what it must have been like.

On the night the world ends, the actor Arthur Leander has a heart attack and dies on stage while performing the lead role in King Lear. Arthur is a famous man. He has three ex-wives, and a son from whom he is estranged. But Arthur is not an unkind man. He makes friends easily, and takes his friendships seriously. He even remains on friendly terms with (some of) his ex-wives.

Two people who were with him when he died survive the flu – Jeevan, a paparazzo turned paramedic who gave him CPR and Kirsten, a little girl who had a bit part in the play and who watched him die beside her on the stage. Twenty years later, they still remember Arthur. His death has had a profound effect on the way they live their lives.

Most of the novel is told from Kirsten's point of view, though we do see some of the world through Jeevan's eyes. Other characters also have parts to play, particularly towards the end. And the things that link them all together are, of course,the life and death of Arthur Leander.

Because some of the people that Arthur influenced have survived the pandemic, there are pieces of Arthur still remaining in this future wasteland. Some, like the memories of the survivors, are ephemeral. Others are more concrete objects such as the tattered comic book called Station Eleven to which Kirsten returns time and again with almost religious fervour because its story has strange parallels with her own and which (mild spoiler) will eventually provide a unifying explanation for some very puzzling events.

Kirsten is still an actress. She works with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of actors and musicians that moves between the isolated settlements of the flu survivors. The Symphony makes a living by performing Shakespeare's plays and giving concerts. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten's arm is a line from Star Trek: "Because survival is insufficient." It is both the motto and the inspiration of the Travelling Symphony.

A place that they have often visited and where they are usually made very welcome is St. Deborah by the Water. They are looking forward to visiting again and looking forward even more to reconnecting with two Symphony members who had settled there during their last visit. But on this visit they find that things have changed, and not for the better.St. Deborah by the Water has a new ruler who is referred to as a prophet and there is no sign of the Travelling Symphony people that they were looking forward to meeting again.

The prophet offers the troop of actors his protection and requests that in return they might care to donate one of the young ladies from their company to become one of his wives. The Travelling Symphony refuses his offer and they sneak away in the night. Of course this angers the prophet and soon the Symphony find themselves on the run as the prophet hunts them down and punishes them.

This book has everything. There's action aplenty for those who want it, and an ingenious, page-turning plot that links a multitude of seemingly disparate events and people. I promise that it will have you on the edge of your seat. Also, as a bonus, the novel is beautifully written, almost elegiac in places.

But it's a lot more than just a damn good story full of gorgeous prose. Station Eleven is also a profound meditation on the influence of art on real life and just how ordinary people can use it to decide what it means to be “human”. Because, of course, survival alone can never be sufficient.

Sometimes I crave a nice traditional SF tale of derring do. I was in such a mood recently when I stumbled across Castaway Planet by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor (surely that must a pseudonym. Can a real person actually be called Ryk E. Spoor?). Anyway,Castaway Planetis about as traditional an SF story as you can get. Fleeing a catastrophe, our heroes crash land their space ship on a planet where they are forced to survive using only their wits and the resources of the planet itself. It's no accident that the book is dedicated to both Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson because it's both of those stories. In space.

Apparently the novel is part of a series, but it's completely stand alone and I didn't miss not having read the other books. Indeed, from the few hints dropped in the story I suspect the series as a whole will probably be rather dull. But not Castaway Planet. It's a rip-roaring, belting little story that I thoroughly enjoyed. Don't go looking for any depth; there isn't any. It's all surface. But it's one hell of a surface...

The book has an utterly brilliant ending which is at one and the same time quite ingenious and also a huge cliff-hanger that makes me want to read the sequel NOW! Unfortunately I'll have to wait because it hasn't been written yet. Damn!

Normally I love Mike Resnick's novels and he's a writer I always seek out on the bookshelves. But I'm afraid his new novel The Fortress In Orion has no redeeming features.

The Democracy is at war with the Traanskei Coalition. They have managed to clone General Michkag, one of the Traanskei's master strategists. The clone has been carefully trained to take the General's place and to misdirect the enemy's forces and funnel vital information to the Democracy. All that the heroes of the story have to do is kidnap the General and substitute the clone so as to make it all happen.

Not even Mike Resnick's writerly skill can breathe life into such a hoary old plot. It plods along from stock situation to stock situation. It's plotting and writing by numbers, as if Mike Resnick only had half his mind on what he was doing. It reads like a contractual obligation novel.

Ross Thomas was a thriller writer who tried very hard to transcend the genre. Lawrence Block, another thriller writer who sometimes commits literature, has remarked that unlike a lot of thrillers, Ross Thomas' novels can be read more than once with great enjoyment. Even when you are well aware of the ending and you know exactly what the relationships are between the characters, you can still get something new out of every re-read. Partly this is due to the complexity of the plots – it's almost impossible to figure out what's going on the first time you read the story. You get a superficial understanding, of course. How could you not? And let's face it, if the story didn't grab you, you wouldn't bother to finish it. But nevertheless, motives remain mixed and subtleties go unremarked. Second and subsequent re-reads are full of “Oh! Of course!” moments along with “So that's what it means!” insights. Ross Thomas' novels definitely represent value for money. You return to them again and again...

Thomas was also a brilliant prose stylist and he could always be relied upon for a wittily cynical turn of phrase and a sardonic bon-mot. In many ways, his novels remind me of the novels of Len Deighton – complex plots and cynical observations were always a Deighton characteristic. I'm sure that if you are familiar with Len Deighton's work you will fall on Ross Thomas' books with glad cries of glee.

According to his friends, Ross Thomas delighted in breaking the rules. Somehow he managed to get his hands on a list of things that publishers absolutely hated to see in a thriller. He worked methodically through it, deliberately putting as many items from the list as he could into his books. One of the absolutely forbidden things, it seems, is a dwarf. Publishers hate dwarves, don't ask me why. When he read that, Ross Thomas chuckled mightily, rubbed his hands together, and sat down to write The Eighth Dwarf.

The story takes place in 1946. A German Jewish assassin has taken it upon himself to kill those Nazi war criminals who have escaped the justice imposed by the Nuremberg trials. Organisations from the United States, Britain and Russia are all looking for him along with agents from theembryonic state of Israel.

The protagonist, Minor Jackson, has recently been discharged from the now defunct OSS. He's at a bit of a loose end, and he joins forces with an utterly untrustworthy Romanian dwarf called Radu Florescu to hunt the assassin down.

You might think you've read this story a hundred times before. You'd be wrong. This is a masterful book.

Edward D. Hoch was a contemporary of Ross Thomas and he wrote in the same genre. Unlike Thomas, he wrote very few novels, concentrating mainly on short stories. He wrote more than 900 stories and he had a whole stable of standard characters that he used again and again. He specialisedin what you might call classical detective stories, the emphasis being on mysteries that are solved by deduction rather than by suspense and fast action. He was particularly good at "impossible crime" tales – stories where the crime (usually a murder) could not possibly have happened even though it did! For example in The Second Problem of the Covered Bridge, a man is shot at close range while completely alone on a covered bridge, with crowds of witnesses watching both ends of the bridge...

City of Brass is a collection of stories about his most popular sleuth – Simon Ark.

The stories in the collection are perfectly ordinary, straightforward genre stories. They are enjoyable, but nothing special. But what is intriguing is the character of Simon Ark himself. Hints are dropped here and there throughout the stories that Simon has a mysterious past. He may well be more than 2000 years old, condemned to wander the earth in search of Satan with whom he will eventually have to do battle. Nothing much is made of this background and it is never overt. But it does add an interesting dimension to Simon Ark's deductions. You can learn a lot in 2000 years of living.

Does this make the stories science fiction? No – I don't think it does. They are standard mystery stories derived directly from Sherlock Holmes via Agatha Christie. Ark's background is just salt in the stew, designed to make it a bit more tasty. Apparently Hoch has actually written some SF stories (even some SF novels) but I've not read any of them.

Fredric Brown was a contemporary of both Thomas and Hoch. Unlike them he had a huge reputation as both an SF author and as a thriller writer. He wrote many classic stories in both genres. He stopped writing in the early 1960s (he died in 1972) and these days his work is largely out of print. Probably his best novel was Madball and, perversely, it is also one of the hardest to find. It was published in 1953 by Dell as a rather flimsy paperback and reprinted in 1961 by Gold Medal.

It's about the seamy side of life in a travelling carnival. In the first chapter, Mark Irby returns to the carnival after having been hospitalised following a car crash. Charlie, his travelling companion, was killed and Irby is rather pleased by this because not only does he have a pocketful of cash from the insurance payout, he will no longer have to share the proceeds of a robbery that he committed with Charlie. Dead men have no use for money.

The first thing Irby does is purchase the services of one of the carnival girls. Enforced abstinence in hospital has given him a sharp appetite and he uses the girl several times before finally falling asleep. The girl takes the opportunity to leave him, and while she is gone someone murders Irby, beating his head in with a tent stake.

Subsequent chapters are told from several different points of view – carnival people who all have a different take on the murder and who all have their own secrets and their own failures. The novel paints a very convincing (and gloomy) portrait of life in a carnival. The book is full of carnival slang and it clearly shows the sordid reality that lies behind the gloss and the glitter. Few of the characters have any redeeming features. The shows they put on are all con tricks, and the girls are all whores. The “Mystery Of Sex” show, a highlight of the carnival, simply consists of foetuses floating in formalin in glass jars, and a selection of pornographic books for sale to the marks. Among themselves the carnies refer to the show as the punk show, and the foetuses are known as pickled punks.

The reader always knows who the murderer is. Several chapters are told from his point of view and we even know his name – Evans. But we don't know which of the carnies is Evans, that name is never used in conversation.

It's a clever, though sordid, book with quite a complex plot. Brown is juggling a lot of balls in this story and, like the performers in his carnival, he never lets any of them fall. I read it with utter fascination. Not only did I need to know who the murderer was, I also wanted to know a lot more about the people who called the carnival home. Both of my needs were completely satisfied.

I was also astonished by how explicit the novel was. Remember, the book was published in 1953. In 1953, people didn't have explicit sex in novels, not even heterosexual sex. Homosexuality and paedophilia were completely unknown. Nevertheless all these things happen overtly in Fredric Brown's novel. They are quite intrinsic to the plot – the motivations of many of the characters are tightly bound up with their sexual tastes and Brown pulls no punches when he describes what is going on.

Madball isn't a nice book. It has no nice people in it. But it does tell a gripping story and its description of a lifestyle that has now largely vanished from the world gives it an added dimension. Over the years I've sought out and read most of Fredric Brown's books. Without a shadow of a doubt, this one is his masterpiece.

After a lot of practice I have now (mostly) managed to train my vocal chords to say Street Aubyn Saint without stumbling. Consequently it seems appropriate to try the same game with all the other abbreviations I find on the signposts that pass me by. I particularly enjoy the drive home from Hastings because then we drive along Napier Rural Delivery, turn into Street Hill Natural Logarithm (my very favourite) and then into Brookvale Rural Delivery and finally along Woodlands Doctor. Unfortunately our journey has no Ave Caesar – morituri te salutamus on it. Perhaps that's just as well.

Acknowledgements: I'd like to say a big Thank You to Jane Lindskold who straightened out my initially rather twisted ideas about the design of American cities and the nature of American thoroughfares.

Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven Knopf
Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor Castaway Planet Baen
Mike Resnick The Fortress In Orion Pyr
Ross Thomas The Eighth Dwarf Mysterious Press
Edward D. Hoch City of Brass Mysterious Press
Fredric Brown Madball Dell
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