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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (os subitis)

The Emergency Bone

It wasn't a dark and stormy night. Therefore the dawn was very bright and clear, though it was more than a little chilly. Jake the Dog was out in the garden chewing on his emergency bone, the one he uses to make time go faster so that the things he's looking forward to will happen much sooner. He looked up at me with his limpid, brown eyes and he said, "Is it time for my morning walk yet?"

"Yes it is, Jake," I said. "Let's get going."

He dropped his emergency bone on the lawn. Its job was done. He came bounding into the house. I dressed up warmly – thick denim jeans, a leather jacket, my new hoodie, a scarf and a pair of woolly gloves. I put Jake's lead around his neck, and off we went, out into the cold light of day. The grass was white with frost and it crunched under our feet as we strode along. "Oh dear," said Jake as we turned the corner, "that doesn't look good."

The house at the end of the road had its lawn sprinklers going. They are very badly adjusted and they squirt high pressure jets of water all over the pavement rather than over the lawn. While they are squirting, the footpath is soaking wet and quite unusable, unless you fancy a free shower. When they stop squirting, the winter weather quickly turns the damp pavement into a deadly sheet of ice which is best avoided by those of a slippery disposition.

"That is a problem," I agreed. "There isn't a footpath on the other side so we'll have to walk in the road. That isn't very safe. Shall we go back home and wait until the sprinklers are turned off?"

"No," decided Jake. "I think I'd rather take my chances with the road."

We crossed over and walked along the edge of the road, past the gardens of the houses that lined that side of the street. Jake sniffed constantly at all the smells, concentrating on each one for minutes at a time.

"Why are you taking so long over all those smells?" I asked him. "It's slowing our walk down and I'm getting colder and colder. Let's keep moving or else my lubrication will freeze solid in my veins and I'll seize up completely."

"I'm so lucky those sprinklers were turned on" said Jake. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world. Somebody's got an advance copy of the next Game of Thrones novel and they're sharing it all along here, chapter by chapter as their bladder allows. I've got to read every word. It's very exciting..."

"Oh come on," I said, tugging hard at his lead. "Let's at least try and get to the end of the road."

"Hang on," said Jake. "I've just got to a good bit." He inhaled deeply. "Well," he said, "I never expected that would happen!"

The Medusa Chronicles is a collaborative novel by Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds. It continues the story that Arthur C. Clarke began in his novella A Meeting With Medusa. The Clarke story was arguably his last major work. It describes the events that happened when Howard Falcon went exploring in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Baxter and Reynolds take some fairly broad hints from Clarke's story and expand upon them as they follow Falcon's life over the next thousand years or so in a series of novellas that chart the rise of machine intelligence and the way that humans (and some non-humans) interact with the machines. Along the way, we also learn a lot more about the medusae themselves – the alien creatures that live out their lives in Jupiter's atmosphere.

Annoyingly, Clarke's story is not included in the novel; probably for copyright reasons. However since the novel itself takes up the story at almost the point that Clarke left it, it really would be a good idea to read (or in my case re-read) the Clarke story first.

Baxter and Reynolds have done a brilliant job of channelling the spirit of Arthur C. Clarke. Their treatment of the material is very Clarke-like and time and again I came across paragraphs that I would swear had been written by Clarke himself. But the book is more than a pastiche, much more than just an homage to Clarke. It's a very clever novel in its own right; a brilliant and thoughtful piece of science fiction writing. As you can probably tell, I enjoyed it a lot and I recommend it highly.

Alistair Reynolds is not Stephen Baxter's only collaborator. For the last five years he and Terry Pratchett have been writing the Long Earth series. The last volume, The Long Cosmos has just been published and in an afterword, Baxter makes it quite clear that the book was largely complete when Pterry died. So it truly is a collaboration in the proper sense of the word.

The premise of the series is that a device called a stepper gives people access to an infinity of parallel Earths (and, in the third book in the series, an infinity of parallel Marses (if that is a word – Baxter and Pratchett appear to think it is, though my spelling checker disagrees)).

I've not read The Long Cosmos yet. I recall greatly enjoying the first book, The Long Earth. But I could never really get into the second volume and so I gave up on the series. In retrospect, I'm fairly sure that my difficulties with the second volume were largely caused by the fact that it was published a year or so after the first one and by that time I no longer remembered very much about the events of the first novel. Also, and probably more importantly, I no longer remembered who the characters were and what roles they had played. Were they heroes or villains? I didn't know, and it spoiled my enjoyment. The story didn't come alive for me.

But there remained that niggling fact that I had really enjoyed the first volume. So now that all five books are available and the series is complete, I've decided to start again at the beginning and read my way through all the books one by one. As I write this, I've just begun reading the fourth book and I must confess that this time round I'm greatly enjoying myself. My original problems with the second book proved to be non-existent when I dived into it again. This really is one very long story that just happens to have been published in five volumes. You simply can't read any of the volumes as a stand alone novel. Since I had only vague recollections of what came before when I first tried to read the second book, it's no wonder that I bogged down in it.

An important plot device is the notion that humanity as we know it (i.e. people like us) have developed on only one of the Earths. As the explorers fan out into more and more of the parallel worlds, other hominids are discovered and so are other non-hominid evolutionary branches of the tree of life. But homo sapiens evolved only once on an infinity of worlds. Immediately that raises the question of just how other hominids might have a world view that differs from our own. And what about non-hominids? Dogs, for example, or possibly crabs. Can we have anything in common with them? This is a very science fictional speculation of course. As long as SF has existed, it has wrestled with the problem of alien intelligences. It just so happens that this time the aliens are home grown, albeit not necessarily always in our own home.

Allied with this unsettling thought is the notion that access to the Long Earth effectively frees us from resource constraints. The infinite parallel worlds give us an infinite supply of every resource we might need, all the way from land to live on through to the minerals on which our economy depends. In the Long Earth there is no such thing as a rare earth element any more.

There is a theory that wars are caused by the scarcity of resources. Just look at all the people who claimed that America invaded Iraq (and Kuwait before it) simply in pursuit of oil. It seems likely that there is some degree of truth hiding somewhere in that claim. So, the authors ask themselves, how would things be different if there could never be such a thing as an oil shortage ever again? Would the number of wars decline? It's an intriguing idea...

The books have lots of surface glitter. They are rattling good yarns, full of wonder, full of excitement. But they also have a thoughtful undercurrent running through them which makes me wonder if the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Overall, I'm very impressed.

Back in the 1960s (yes, I was there and yes, I remember them) I was quite a fan of the Kinks – Ray Davies' idiosyncratic and beautifully observed songs had a delicious wit. Waterloo Sunset, Sunny Afternoon, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Lola the hits just kept coming and coming. And then, suddenly, there was total silence. The Kinks seemed to have dropped off the edge of the world and we all moved on to other things.

God Save the Kinks is a biography of the group by Rob Jovanovic. I read it in utter fascination. The story of the Kinks is longer and much more fascinating than I ever dreamed. The defining nature of the Kinks was, of course, the never ending feud between Ray and Dave Davies, the brothers who founded the group. Both had mercurial personalities and they had many famous arguments and disputes. More than once they descended to fights on stage. Dave "left" the group and made solo records (Death of a Clown was particularly notable), but he always returned.

For obscure reasons, the Kinks were banned from touring America for a decade or more. Artistically, this was probably good for them even if it meant that they suffered financially. However once the ban was lifted, they spent a lot of their time in America and their British reputation began to suffer as a result. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder.

When they vanished from my ken, I simply assumed that the Davies' brothers feud had finally come to a head and that the group had fragmented, and gone their separate and ever more obscure ways. But it turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. As the Kinks British reputation declined in Britain, so their American reputation increased. They continued producing chart topping records in America, and they played to packed American houses. Neither of these statements applied to Britain. Their records sold poorly in the UK and never made the charts and their concerts were badly attended. Clearly their future was overseas, and that is where they concentrated their efforts.

Jovanovic analyses some of their later works. One album in particular comes in for great praise. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is an album I've never heard of. But Jovanovic compares it favourably with the Beatles Sergeant Pepper, claiming that both artistically and musically it was as impressive as the Beatles' magnum opus. (In an interesting bit of serendipity, this Kinks album has a small, but important, part to play in Baxter and Pratchett's The Long War).

God Save the Kinks really opened my eyes to much musical history of which I was previously unaware. It has made me look at the Kinks in a whole new light. I have ordered a CD of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society from WarriorWomanWithOnlyOneBreast, and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival.

White Heat by Dominic Sandbrook is subtitled A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. It explores two main narrative threads. One, of course, is the over-familiar social revolution of the sixties. That has been chronicled so many times by so many people that there are few, if any, insights remaining to be explored. Certainly all that Sandbrook does is haul out all the old clichés all over again: Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Mary Quant, the Beatles, the Stones, David Bailey.

Much more interesting, from my point of view, is Sandbrook's analysis of the nature of Harold Wilson's Labour government which dominated that decade. Almost all the members of that government are now safely dead and can no longer sue for libel. So Sandbrook pulls no punches, and the insights are both fascinating and scary. The anti-hero of the book is definitely George Brown. Initially he was Wilson's secretary for economic affairs. Later he became foreign secretary. He was a notorious drunkard and lecher who committed a seemingly never ending series of gin-fuelled diplomatic gaffes which were all swept under the carpet and referred to only indirectly in the popular press. How such an inept, ignorant, shallow and dangerous man continued to wield the reigns of power so disastrously and for such a long time remains a mystery. Perhaps he knew where the bodies were buried. While he was alive, the newspapers were not allowed to call him a drunken incompetent, so Private Eye famously coined the phrase "tired and emotional" to describe him. It proved to be such an effective phrase that it has entered the language.

Brown was not the only scary incompetent in Wilson's government. All too often the wheelers and dealers proved to wearing ideological blinders that hid the real world from their sight. Anthony Crosland famously declared that he would "...destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland". He largely succeeded in his aim. Unfortunately he didn't have very much of an idea about what to replace them with and secondary education in the UK descended into chaos. Barbara Castle was appointed Minister of Transport. Famously, she couldn't even drive a car. Nevertheless, she pontificated endlessly about the habits of Britain's motorists.

Probably the only thing that held this bunch of incompetent idiots together was Harold Wilson's charismatic personality. But even he was consumed by paranoid conspiracy theories. His supreme achievement was keeping Britain out of the Vietnam war, but he made a complete mess of negotiating with Ian Smith over Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence. He based his governmental philosophy on "the white heat of technology", but he didn't understand it and had no idea how to implement the technologies that he saw as the saviour of Britain. He presided over a decade of mess and muddle.

Sandbrook's analysis of the Wilson years is fascinating. The politics of the time have seldom been so well presented.

After a lot of stopping and starting and much quiet contemplation, Jake and I finally got to the end of the road. We turned right and walked towards the park. Suddenly Jake came to a complete halt. "I'm not going that way," he said firmly.

Usually Jake is more than happy to go wherever I point him. There are always smells to investigate and sometimes there are sticks. Once there had even been a dead sheep. But despite all these attractive possibilities, this time Jake absolutely refused to move. Thirty six kilograms of dog is an immovable object and I am very far from being an irresistible force. So the laws of physics meant that we were stuck. "What's the problem?" I asked him, puzzled.

"There's a tyre in the path," said Jake. "I think it might have come off the back wheel of a Nissan Nasty. Look at it lying there, all horrible, round and black. I don't like it. I don't want to go anywhere near it."

"Don't worry Jake," I said. "I'll protect you." I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to get back home. Everything seemed to be conspiring to make this walk last forever. But finally, after much persuasion and a dried liver dog treat, Jake reluctantly agreed to carry on. He sidled cautiously up to the tyre and sniffed it. The tyre just lay there passively. It didn't seem to care that it was being sniffed.

"Huh!" Jake grunted, unimpressed. "It's a copy of Pride and Prejudice. I read that ages ago when I was just a puppy and I've re-read it several times since. I can't imagine why I was so worried about the stupid tyre. I think I'll overwrite it with Game of Thrones." He lifted his leg and did just that. "OK," he said cheerfully, "give me another bit of dried liver and let's walk on."

We left the tyre behind and carried on walking. Apart from a brief stop to peruse a Harry Potter spin-off we made it back home without further incident. Perhaps I'd been wrong about the conspiracy.

Jake ambled out into the garden and went straight back to his emergency bone. "Is it time for my lunchtime walk yet?" he asked.

And, of course, it was.

Stephen Baxter and Alistair Reynolds The Medusa Chronicles Gollancz
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett
The Long Earth Doubleday
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett The Long War
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett The Long Mars
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett The Long Utopia
Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett The Long Cosmos
Rob Jovanovic God Save The Kinks Aurum
Dominic Sandbrook White Heat Little, Brown

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