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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (cogitabundus beneficium)

Alan and the Pensive Pension

When I lived in England, I worked for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Towards the end of my time with them, they decided to implement a pension scheme for their employees. A small fraction of our pay went into a fund, and that payment was matched with an equivalent amount from the Society itself. It was the usual sort of arrangement for that kind of thing. I was only in the scheme for about two years, and then I left the job and emigrated to New Zealand. One of the things the Society gave me when I left them was a piece of paper informing me of the pension amount that I was eligible to claim when I reached the magic age of 65. I filed the paper away and forgot all about it. I found it hard to imagine that I would ever be old enough to collect the money and, of course, the amount owed to me was extraordinarily small because I hadn't been in the scheme for very long.

Time passed, as it has a habit of doing, and eventually, rather to my surprise, I actually reached the magic age of retirement. I claimed my statutory pension from the New Zealand government and settled down to enjoy the passing of the days. I didn't bother doing anything about the small Royal Society pension. It all seemed like far too much trouble for too little return, and besides, they were a long way away. Out of sight, out of mind.

But this is the twenty-first century. You can run, but you can't hide. They'll track you down all the way to the edge of the world and beyond. And so, one day, rather to my surprise, an email slithered into my inbox from the consultancy company that was administering The Royal Society of Chemistry pension scheme.

As the title implies, The Collected Kagan is a collection of the late Janet Kagan's short fiction. It has recently been (re)-published as an ebook by Baen Books, along with her novel Hellspark and the fix-up novel of linked stories Mirabile. I've long been familiar with these last two books, and I'm very fond of them, but I've never read anything else of Janet Kagan's. So on the strength of my admiration for her two novels, I immediately went and bought The Collected Kagan. I was not disappointed; I loved it.

One of the many highlights of the collection is her 1993 Hugo award winning novelette The Nutcracker Coup. The story is set on a planet called Rejoicing. The aliens who live there are covered in quills, which are their pride and joy. They live under the control of a dictatorial ruler who punishes anti-social or criminal activity by clipping the quills of the guilty, which is deeply shameful of course. Marianne, a diplomat from Earth, enjoys a close relationship with a Rejoicer called Tatep and the story concerns her efforts to understand just how Rejoicer society works and to explain her own society to the Rejoicers. In the course of this, her unwitting actions inadvertently light a spark of revolution among the Rejoicers, which may or may not be a good thing...

Kagan seems to have a thing about bodily mutilation as a punishment. Two other stories in the collection (Winging It and Fighting Words) examine the same idea. These two stories are set on the human colony world of LostRoses which hosts a diplomatic mission from the alien Crotonites –  beautiful winged creatures whose greatest delight is to soar and fly. The entire Crotonite society (and even their language) is based around the glories of flying. Clipping their wings is a terrible thing to do to them. Nevertheless, the Crotonite ambassador to LostRoses has had his wings surgically removed, the idea being that because he is no longer able to fly he is likely to have a greater appreciation of the issues that the ground-based, wingless humans think are important.

Harriet Kingsolver is the person designated to look after him. Harriet is a cripple, confined to a wheelchair, so of course she and the Crotonite ambassador have something in common straight away – both of them are crippled in the eyes of their peers. However neither of them allow themselves any trace of self-pity. There are always compensations if you know where to look...

Harriet was crippled in a hang-gliding accident. LostRoses has perfect hang-gliding winds and the sport is hugely popular – so again the human and the alien find they have something in common –  both are now denied access to the air. Or are they?

The major themes of Janet Kagan's writing are both ecological and sociological. The two LostRoses stories are particularly strong here because the human colony of LostRoses is itself organised in eccentric ways derived partly from the popularity of hang-gliding and partly by the nature of the strange harvests that give LostRoses its economic viability. Perhaps  this gives Harriet some insight into the Crotonite society – certainly, when problems arise, she is always able to be of very practical help.

In lesser hands, stories such as these might have become ponderous and preachy, but Janet Kagan never makes that mistake. Her touch is light, and her stories are often very funny even when their concerns are serious.

Mirabile was her most successful novel. It is made up of a series of linked stories, all set on the eponymous world. I strongly suspect that she recognised the potential of this approach. Had she lived long enough, I'm sure she would have written more stories about LostRoses and eventually we would have had another fix-up novel to rival Mirabile. Unfortunately that never came to pass.

When you read a physical book, you always know how close you are to the end because you can feel the thickness of the remaining pages in your fingers. There is no such tactile indication on an ebook. As it happens, most ebook readers will allow you to display a page count and will give you some kind of an indication on the screen as to how far through the book you currently are. But even if you choose to turn that function on, you still have to make the effort to drag your eyes away from the story so as to look at the page count display. Personally I never bother.

So there I was, reading The Collected Kagan and thoroughly enjoying myself, wallowing in the words, and stroking the screen to turn the electronic pages. Every time a story ended, I would stroke the screen again and a new story would begin. Then the story I was currently reading finished and I stroked the screen and absolutely nothing happened! The page refused to turn. I tried again, but I still couldn't reach the next page. For a moment I was honestly convinced that my reader was broken. But then, of course, the penny dropped and I checked the page count display. Yes, I really had reached the end of the book. It had snuck up on me when I wasn't looking and it took me completely by surprise. Suddenly I was angry – there weren't any more stories to read, and that really didn't seem fair at all.

Janet Kagan died in 2008. She was 63 years old. She was never a very prolific writer. I think she took a long time to write each story because she constructed them all so carefully and so cleverly. The only things she wrote were the books I've mentioned here and also a Star Trek novel called Uhura's Song which I've never read but which I am reliably informed is one of the better Star Trek novels. And that's all there is. It's a small, but extremely good, body of work. I hope she was very proud of herself; she certainly deserved to be. If you have not read Janet Kagan before, I strongly urge you to buy these new ebook editions of her work. I'm sure you won't regret it.

David Langford, the SF critic and one of the big wheels behind the SF Encyclopedia is slowly bringing the back-list of his non-fiction (and a certain amount of his fiction) back into print as ebooks. You can buy them all for very reasonable prices by visiting:

The SEX Column and Other Misprints is a collection of columns that he wrote for SFX Magazine  from 1995 to 2005. (Columns from 2005 to 2009 are reprinted, along with other material in Starcombing, also available as an ebook. The forthcoming collection The Last SFX Visions will collect the columns from 2009 to 2016 when SFX Magazine discontinued the feature).

What can I say? Langford is famed far and wide for his wit, his wisdom and his insightful criticism. In 1987, at the world convention in Brighton, he emptied a pint of beer over a scientologist. I was at that convention, but unfortunately I missed this act of applied literary criticism.

Langford himself recommends that the reader just dip into The SEX Column here and there and now and then, perusing the occasional article as the mood takes you. Perhaps that is a viable strategy, but I found it impossible to follow. Reading a Langford article is rather like eating a packet of crisps (chips for the left-pondians among my readers). You can't eat just one, you have to keep going until all of a sudden the packet is empty, you have salty fingertips that you let your dog lick as a special treat, and you have a vague feeling of dissatisfaction that there aren't any more left...

In other words, I read this book from cover to cover in one sitting, chortling wildly. I bet you will too.

"The tracing agency we employ has suggested that you might be the Alan Robson who worked for the Royal Society from 1972 to 1980." said the email. "If you can confirm that, we would like to pay you some money, though not very much."

"Yes," I said, somewhat reluctantly, "that's me."

"Oh good," said the email. "All you have to do now is prove that to my satisfaction and then you can sit back and let the money trickle in."

"How do I do that?" I asked.

"Let's start with your full postal address, your date of birth, and your British National Insurance number," said the email. "If these last two bits of information match what we have on file, we'll move on to the next step."

"OK," I said, "here's the info." I felt rather proud of myself. It isn't everybody who can remember their National Insurance number thirty five years after they last used it in anger. Fortunately I had it written down on a piece of paper – the same piece of paper, as it happens, that the Royal Society had given me when I left their employment. Even more fortunately, that piece of paper had survived the move across the world and several moves between cities here in New Zealand. Not all my pieces of paper have been that lucky.

"Looks good," said the email. "All I need now is your birth certificate."

"Sorry," I said. "I'm not willing to trust my birth certificate to the postal services. There's a lot of water between here and the UK. Anything could happen to it. How about I let you have a notarised copy of it instead?"

The email grumbled a bit, but eventually agreed that would probably do. "Oh, by the way," it added, "the pension will be taxed at source in the UK before you receive it."

"But it will be taxed here by the New Zealand IRD when I declare it," I said. "Does that mean I get taxed twice on the same income?"

"Yes," said the email smugly.

"That seems a bit unfair," I said. "There won't be anything left after I've paid two lots of tax on it."

"Sorry," said the email. "I don't make the rules, I just obey them."

Churchill's First War by Con Coughlin is an account of Winston Churchill's early military career when he fought in Afghanistan in the 1890s. Churchill himself wrote about this campaign in his (largely forgotten) first book The Story of the Malakand Field Force. As an examination of the life of the young Churchill, Coughlin's book probably cannot be beaten. Using quotes from Churchill's own writing and from recollections penned by some of Churchill's contemporaries, he makes it very clear that even as a young man, Churchill had high political ambitions, and all his life-choices were made with a slightly cynical eye to the main chance.

Depressingly, it becomes very clear during the course of this book that if Churchill was reanimated today and sent back to Afghanistan, he'd feel right at home. Nothing of any significance has changed in the last century and a quarter. The religious and political schisms that divide the country are the same today as they were when Churchill fought there. Even the military and political tactics remain unchanged. Only the weapons have become a bit more sophisticated.

The book is both insightful and fascinating. It examines Churchill's early life and chronicles the development of his character and of his political philosophies. It also makes for depressing reading simply because so little has changed in the intervening years.

Coughlin says:

If the Central Intelligence Agency, which directs many of the drone operations, were to draw up a map of the hundreds of drones strikes that have been launched against insurgent groups in the tribal areas, it would find that they were targeting virtually the same villages and valleys in the FATA area where Churchill and his colleagues fought more than one hundred years earlier.

I don't know about you, but I find that observation to be very sad.

Michael Dobbs is an English author who writes very insightful political novels (you may know him best as the author of the House of Cards trilogy). However he is a completely different Michael Dobbs from the one who wrote the fascinating non-fiction book Down With Big Brother which traces the historical, political and social forces that led to the fall of the Soviet Union. This other Michael Dobbs is an American journalist who works for the Washington Post. However, just like his English namesake, this Michael Dobbs has a deep understanding of the political realities that lie behind the events that have shaped the world.

There's a na´ve belief that the policies implemented by the American president Ronald Reagan were a direct cause of the downfall of the Eastern European communist states. While Reagan's policies were arguably a contributing factor, Dobbs very firmly makes the point that really Reagan was just lucky enough to be president at a time when internal tensions were starting to crack open the facades of unity and strength all over the communist world. In other words, it was all inevitable. Hindsight is a wonderfully powerful analytic technique.

It all began, says Dobbs, in Poland with the formation of the Solidarity union under the leadership of Lech Walesa in 1980. Over the next decade or so, similar movements arose in other communist states and for once the Soviet Union itself refused to send in the tanks to put down these little rebellions by force of arms as they had done in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968. (Though it was a close run thing – the Soviet tanks were mobilised on the borders). Discontent spread and the Soviet Union itself proved not to be immune. Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of reform and openness gave power to a strong opposition and that, together with a disastrously expensive war in Afghanistan brought the whole house of cards (!) tumbling down.

I think most people are familiar with that outline – certainly I could have written that last paragraph at any time in the last twenty years without having had to read the Dobbs book first, and probably you could have written it too. But the thing that makes Down With Big Brother so insightful is Dobbs' unique knowledge of the personalities involved in these events. What prompted Lech Walesa to form Solidarity in the first place?

Much of what happened can be explained only as a function of the personalities of the wheelers and dealers themselves. The forces that shaped them were often personal, pragmatic power plays rather than an ideological commitment. Boris Yeltsin's abrasive and argumentative manner and his life-long contempt for the rules had a large part to play, as did Gorbachev's own naivety about the forces arraigned against him (a naivety which actually was largely ideologically driven). This last meant that Gorbachev was completely unable to understand the ramifications of what was happening both at home and in the Soviet satellite states that, one and all, began active campaigns against the external imposition of soviet doctrines which had held them back from the world for a generation. Indeed, Gorbachev was so out of touch that he utterly failed even to foresee the political coup that briefly ousted him from office!

Michael Dobbs was well acquainted with most of the people involved in these events, both inside and outside the Soviet Union itself. He had interviewed them many times and he was well aware of their foibles and their beliefs. All of this meant that he was uniquely placed to explain their roles in the eventual collapse of the system.

This book is, without a doubt, the definitive political and personal analysis of the events that re-drew the map of Europe towards the end of the twentieth century. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You owe it to yourself to read it.

I contacted the New Zealand tax department (the IRD) and asked what I could do about the double taxation.

"Today's your lucky day," said the IRD. "As it happens, we have an agreement with the UK tax authorities. All you have to do is fill in the hugely complicated form I've just posted to you. Send a copy to me and another copy to the UK tax people and in the fullness of time they'll stop taxing you in the UK and leave it all up to us. Oh, and by the way, since you are in receipt of untaxed income which you have to declare here in New Zealand, you are deemed to be self-employed and you will have to fill in an IR3 form and pay provisional tax on your estimated income for the next twelve months."

It all sounded horribly complicated and I began to regret having admitted to the email that I was the Alan Robson it was looking for. Perhaps I could go back to square one and do a Jedi thing that would convince the email that really I was not the Alan Robson it was looking for. I began to consider the benefits of an offshore truss. Unfortunately I didn't know how to spell Mossack Fonseca so clearly the truss would not be able to provide any support...

I filled in the horribly complicated form. Every time it asked me a question I didn't understand I wrote Not Applicable, and crossed my fingers. Then I signed it, dated it, and photocopied it. One copy went to the IRD and one copy to the UK tax people. And then absolutely nothing happened except that every month money from the Royal Society started to appear in my bank account. Furthermore, I also got a monthly snail mail which contained a printed form that told me how much money I was getting and how much tax the UK government had taken away from it.

Then, quite out of the blue, when I'd almost forgotten about the very complicated form, I got a letter from the UK tax authorities informing me that I no longer had to pay tax on my pension and a few days after that, all the tax that I'd paid so far was returned to me in a lump sum.

Now, all that remained to be sorted out was the evil IR3 form that I would have to fill in when the end of the tax year arrived. I'd filled in an IR3 form once before, about twenty years ago and it had been a rather frightening experience. My imaginative answer to Question 11 had caused the IRD's powerful Babbage Mark II  mainframe computer to spring a sprocket and strip all the gears in its primary register. The resultant chaos is still spoken of in hushed tones by the IRD staff. Clearly I was going to need professional help with my IR3 this time around.

I've long been a fan of Laura Lippman's novels. Ostensibly they are crime fictions and certainly they can be read and enjoyed as nothing more than that. But they always have a depth and substance to them that is often missing in examples of the genre from other writers. Her new novel Wilde Lake is a perfect example of what I mean.

Luisa Brandt (known to everybody as Lu) has been elected state's attorney. She is not the first member of her family to hold the office; her father once held the position. She is, however, the first woman in the job. For both these reasons, she clearly has a lot to prove if she is to remain true to herself as her own woman. Her first big case is to prosecute a murder – a mentally disturbed drifter has been accused of beating a woman to death in her own house.

Lu has an older brother known to one and all as AJ. He is something of a hero in the tight knit community of Howard County. Eighteen years ago his best friend Davy was stabbed. AJ took off after the knife wielder and chased him into the forest. Somewhere in there the man with the knife died and AJ broke his arm. Davy himself did not get off scot free. The stabbing paralysed him and he has been confined to a wheelchair ever since.

The more that Lu investigates the murder of the woman, the more she comes across references to the long ago tragedy involving her brother and his friend. The more she learns about those events the more she comes to realise that she has been systematically lied to about almost everything, almost from the day she was born....

The unravelling of all these threads brings with it its own tragedy, and by the time the novel reaches a conclusion, nobody remains unscathed. This novel is about politics and power and influence, but it's also about the secrets that families keep from each other in a misguided attempt to protect the ones that they love. Dysfunctional  families are as corrupt as dysfunctional political organisations for many of the same reasons. in a very real sense, the one is just the other writ large.

Ultimately this is a very sad book. It is skilfully constructed and brilliantly observed. It is one of Laura Lippman's best.

Mark Billingham is best known as the writer of a long series of police procedural novels about Detective Inspector Tom Thorne. However Die of Shame is a stand-alone novel, though I note in passing that Tom Thorne has a very minor role to play right at the very end. Worryingly, this ending does leave the way open for a sequel involving Thorne. I sincerely hope that Billingham never writes it. The novel is perfect as it stands and to take the story any further would, I feel, weaken its impact.

Every Monday evening some ex-addicts (if that isn't an oxymoron) meet in their therapist's house to discuss their addictions and to help each other stay on the straight and narrow. Their therapist, who is also an addict, considers himself uniquely qualified to advise them. There's some truth in that, though this hubris will eventually prove to be his nemesis.

One of the addicts is murdered and the investigating officer, Detective Inspector Nicola Tanner, soon comes to believe that one of the group is responsible. However her investigation is hampered by problems of confidentiality regarding the groups' medical backgrounds and by the simple fact that there is no liar quite so compulsive as an addict, ex or otherwise.

This is a character driven novel. The addicts are, one and all, brilliantly realised and also very different, one from another. Without the reality of their personalities, the book would simply reduce to a rather boring jigsaw puzzle of a plot. However within a very few pages, Billingham brings them all so brilliantly to life (well, except for the dead one of course and even that one has a reasonable amount of strutting and fretting to do upon the stage before finally leaving it) that you simply can't help becoming completely immersed in the story. And every one of these people, including the therapist, seems to have a genuine motive to want to commit murder.

As an added bonus, you'll never guess who did it or why they did it, and when you do find out I'll pretty much guarantee that you'll want to go back to the beginning of the book and read it again armed with your new knowledge, so that you can watch the murderer carefully prepare to commit the crime...

Not only is this a brilliant detective story in the grand tradition, it's also an insightful examination of just what it means to be an addict. And that insight itself is more than a little bit frightening.

Havelock North has everything a retired person could possibly need and one of those things is a tax accountant. I rang the tax accountant and asked for help. "Yes, I can easily do that for you," said a nice lady and I made an appointment to see her.

She listened carefully to my explanation of the situation and examined the figures I provided to her. "Well, that all seems very straightforward," she said. Clearly Question 11 held no fears for her, even though it had grown more complex over the years and now had four parts to it. I felt very reassured.

The next day I got an email from the IRD informing me that the nice lady had been registered as my tax accountant. The day after that she emailed me a summary of my IR3 tax return and and said that if I agreed with the figures, could I come in and sign the form. Since the figures promised me a tax refund of $1200 I couldn't see anything at all to argue with, so I immediately went in to her office and signed the form.

"Apart from the refund," she said, "the other good news is that your Royal Society pension is so extraordinarily tiny that the IRD find it to be beneath contempt, and so you do not have to pay provisional tax."

"That's wonderful," I said. "I'd been quite worried about that."

"I'll file your tax return straight away," she said and presumably she did exactly that because two days later the IRD deposited $1200 into my bank account.

I know what I'm going to be doing at the end of every tax year from now on.

Janet Kagan The Collected Kagan Baen
David Langford The SEX Column and Other Misprints Ansible Editions
Con Coughlin Churchill's First War Macmillan
Michael Dobbs Down With Big Brother Vintage
Laura Lippman Wilde Lake HarperCollins
Mark Billingham Die of Shame Little Brown

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