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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (excludo hominis)

The Locked Door

I stared through the driver side window of my car. There were my keys, dangling from the ignition. All the doors, of course, were locked up as tight as a drum, and the keys were sneering at me and thumbing their noses.

"Ooops!" I said, feeling mildly embarrassed.

"What you need now," said Robin, "is a coat hanger. I'm a bit out of practice, but once upon a time I was a dab hand with a coat hanger. The stories I could tell..."

"Unfortunately," I said, "I emptied all the coat hangers out of my pockets this morning before we left the hotel. I think I must have accidentally put a breeding pair in my trousers. They had several litters overnight, and my trousers were starting to look terribly angular. I couldn't walk in a straight line any more. It was getting quite ridiculous."

"I thought you were clanking a bit yesterday," said Robin. "So can I take it then that you don't have any coat hangers at all now?".

"Not a single one," I said. "I hung them all back up in the wardrobe and closed the door to give them some privacy."

"That's a shame," said Robin. "Oh well, I suppose there's nothing else for it. You'll have to call the AA. I'm sure they'll be able to help. And they probably won't laugh at you at all, though they may well smirk a lot. They are bound to have access to a coat hanger. I'm sure it's a standard item of AA tool box equipment."

One of my regular stops on the information superhighway is John Scalzi's blog Whatever. He has an intermittent feature called The Big Idea in which he invites guest posters of whom I have heard to present an essay in which they try to persuade me to read their new novel. Mostly I remain unconvinced, but sometimes something catches my fancy and I follow up on it. One recent Big Idea piece was by David D. Levine. It concerned his novel Arabella of Mars. I found what he had to say quite intriguing...

Levine's premise is that there exists an atmosphere encompassing the whole of the solar system and sailing boats ply the shipping lanes between the planets. In this universe, Isaac Newton is revered as the discoverer of the buoyancy principle that allows the ships to float up from the surface of a planet into the interplanetary atmosphere. Newton discovered the phenomenon one day when a soap bubble from his bath rose up into the air...

The novel opens on Mars in the year 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic war. Arabella Ashby and her brother are playing a game in the Martian desert that surrounds their house. Something goes wrong, Arabella is injured, and, much against her will, she is returned to England in the company of her mother where she will hopefully take up her place in polite society. However she discovers a plot against her family and is forced to disguise herself as a boy and take passage on a ship to back to Mars in the hope of rescuing her family from death and disgrace.

The novel is full of wonderfully sly jokes – if you blink, you'll miss them. For example, the boatswain on the ship that Arabella joins is called Higgs (if that puzzles you, remember that "boatswain" is pronounced "bosun" which is only one letter removed from "boson"). Another airfaring man is called Stross – an unusual name. I wonder what SF author Charles Stross thinks of the character?

In his Big Idea piece, Levine confesses that he is a huge fan of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin seafaring series and that he has always wanted to write an SF novel that combined the adventure of a long voyage on a sailing ship with a Jane Austen-like novel of manners. (In a sense, that desire is almost an oxymoron since Patrick O'Brian's books already do exactly that!). Nevertheless, in my opinion, Levine succeeds brilliantly in his ambition. Arabella of Mars is exciting, funny, and very, very clever. I loved it to bits.

Levine says that he hopes to write more novels about Arabella's adventures. If he ever does, I will certainly be buying them as soon as they appear.

Another Big Idea piece that made me go and seek out the book was when Shannon Page explained what inspired her to edit the essay collection The Usual Path To Publication. The book consists of 27 essays by 27 writers. Each essay describes how the writer managed to get their first novel published. Once you've read the book, you will know 27 different ways of getting yourself into print. And, without a doubt, none of them will work for you!

In other words, of course, there is no usual path to publication. The title is nicely ironic, and that appealed to me straight away. Furthermore, I knew one of the contributors when she lived in New Zealand, long before she was an actual published writer, and so her essay was a particularly interesting one. Furthermore, her route into print was one of the odder ones, and I found myself nodding in recognition as I read of her adventures because I could so easily imagine the person that I knew jumping through those particular hoops. Great fun!

Gardner Dozois' anthology Mash Up has an interesting premise. The contributors were asked to choose a famous opening line from a mainstream work and to write an SF/F story with the same opening line. Unfortunately, of course, if the reader is not familiar with the opening line then the piece will lose a lot of its impact. Robert Charles Wilson chose to tell a story using the opening line  from one of the Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg who is, apparently, world famous in America but who is utterly unknown to me. Consequently the Wilson story, while it is professionally told, lacked any real impact for me because I had no idea how clever he was being. On the other hand, Mike Resnick chose to open his contribution with one of the most famous lines ever penned ("It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."). Then, using the distinctive style of Damon Runyon, he went on to tell an utterly hilarious story about a bookmaker and a wizard. Brilliant!

The other stories straddle these two extremes – Allen Steele uses "Call me Ishmael", Nancy Kress (bless her) gets to play with "It was a dark and stormy night.", and Tad Williams riffs on the opening line of the Book of Genesis. Rather to my surprise, nobody chose "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.".  Poor Tolstoy...

It's a clever idea for an anthology, but the stories are a bit of a mixed bag and I'm really rather ambivalent about it.

In the Drift is a republication of one of Michael Swanwick's early works. The story assumes that the nuclear accident at Three-Mile Island was not averted (as it was in "real life") and the reactor melted down, destroying much of Pennsylvania in the process. This devastated area is the "Drift" of the title.

The novel is a fix-up, an episodic tale made up of several novellas and short stories which examine the lives of those left behind in the drift; lives which are often nasty, brutal and short. Some of the mutations caused by the radiation are a little hard to accept. For example, I very much doubt that radiation will ever produce semi-telepathic vampires... But if you are willing to suspend your disbelief, the novel tells a mildly interesting story. It's major flaw is that the theme which ties all the episodes together is actually a quite conventional story of political machination. It could easily be recast written as a mainstream novel without the window dressing of the SF elements. I think that flaw greatly detracts from the strength of the book.

I got my cell phone out of my pocket and rang the AA. "Hello," said a charming lady with a thick Indian accent. I explained my predicament to her.

"Oh dear," she said sympathetically. "Where is the car now?"

"It's in the car park at the Whakarewarewa thermal area," I said. There was a long, loud silence.

"Where?" asked the Indian lady. "How do you say that word? Say it again."

"Whakarewarewa," I said obligingly.

"How do you spell that?" she asked.

I spelled it out to her slowly, letter by letter with long pauses between each one, but she still managed to lose track half way through. "Wokaweweaa?" she asked hesitantly.

"No," I said. "Whakarewarewa." I spelled it out again. It didn't help.

"Wokawoka?" she asked. "Isn't that in Australia?"

"No," I said. "It's in New Zealand. Near Rotorua. Just contact the AA office in Rotorua and say Whakarewarewa. They'll know where it is."

"My computer doesn't recognise the name," she said, "and I can't find it on my map."

"What can't you find?" I asked. "Whakarewarewa or Rotorua?"

"Neither," she said. "There's nothing even remotely resembling either of those names anywhere in Australia."

"I'm not in Australia," I said. "I'm in New Zealand."

"Where's New Zealand?" she asked. "How do you spell that?"

Lather, rinse, repeat...

We went round the loop several times and her attempts to spell Whakarewarewa  became increasingly esoteric. Both she and her computer continued to insist that there was no such place. Eventually, probably in a desperate attempt to get me off the phone, she promised that an AA officer really would be with me shortly. Given her spelling and geographical problems, I was dubious about that promise, but rather to my surprise, an AA man did actually turn up an hour or so later.

The Angry Years is Colin Wilson's hugely entertaining examination of the angry young men; those  playwrights, poets, novelists and critics who made up the first significant post war literary movement in the UK. They took their name from the title of John Osborne's play Look Back In Anger. The hero of that play, one Jimmy Porter, spent most of his time indulging himself in bitter (and rather loud) tirades against the establishment. He was a very angry young man indeed, and many other writers with a deep sense of disaffection at the class barriers that kept them from living the good life, seemed to regard Jimmy Porter's polemics as a manifesto. And so a movement was born.

Wilson himself came to prominence in 1956 with the publication of The Outsider, a collection of essays that examined the literary and philosophical principles that define an isolated individual who finds himself on the outside of society, looking in. It seemed to strike some kind of chord, and it was a massive best seller. On the strength of The Outsider, Wilson himself was often considered to be an angry young man. However he always denied being part of the group. After all, wasn't he an outsider?

Nevertheless, he was certainly very well acquainted with almost all of the writers who were tarred with that very angry brush. They all moved in the same social and literary circles and they saw a lot of each other at parties. As a consequence, Wilson always knew where the bodies were buried, and in The Angry Years, he reveals a lot of salacious gossip about the group's prime movers and shakers. All their dirty linen is aired, and there are no secrets any more. This is a very voyeuristic book, but nevertheless, alongside all of the scandal that Wilson reports, there runs a parallel thread of thoughtful literary and social analysis which digs deeply into the mood of the times, and which closely examines the thinking that lay behind the stance those angry young people adopted.

As a result of his analysis, Wilson comes to the conclusion that the movement, if movement it was, was ephemeral, driven much more by personal feelings and insecurities than it was by conviction and philosophy. Almost everyone involved turned out to have feet of clay.

It is Wilson's opinion that most of the angry young men were talentless one shot wonders, and time seems to have proved him right. Osborne himself never again wrote a play with the stature of Look Back In Anger. Arnold Wesker was a playwright whose reputation once eclipsed even that of John Osborne, but these days his plays are seldom, if ever, performed. John Braine wrote one magnificent novel (Room at the Top), a mediocre sequel (Life at the Top) and a dozen or more utterly obscure novels that never amounted to anything very much at all. And who among us these days can name even a single novel by John Wain? I certainly can't.

Of all the angry writers who were considered to be part of the movement, only the novelist Kingsley Amis and the poet Philip Larkin managed to make a significant, lasting impression on the world of letters. Amis's novels sold well throughout his life and, when John Betjeman died, Larkin was offered the post of Poet Laureate. He turned it down...

Both Colin Wilson and I remain uncertain as to whether Amis and Larkin were ever really quite as anti-establishment as their early work suggested they might be. Certainly the socially and politically disaffected Amis of the Lucky Jim years very quickly turned into a complacent, rabidly right wing, alcoholic, fat and fornicating member of the establishment. It's hard to imagine anyone less angry with the status quo (though he was often angry with his friends...). And Larkin kept himself physically quite isolated from the literary activities of the times. He lived most of his life in Hull, a very long way away from the country's cultural centres. He was well aware of what was going on (his posthumously published letters revealed a lifetime-long correspondence with Kingsley Amis and others) but he took little part in the mainstream, preferring to plough his own furrows. Furthermore I think it is significant that although his poetry was often culturally barbed and extremely insightful, he continued to use rhyme and rhythm in an age when his contemporaries had completely abandoned those old fashioned techniques...

From Hull and Halifax and Hell good Lord deliver me. So says The Begger's Litany, and never was a truer word spoken or sung. Believe me on this. I was born in Halifax...

The Angry Years is thoughtful, funny, wise and very probably libellous. I suspect there are good reasons why Colin Wilson waited until all the angry young men were safely dead before he published this book. Sadly, he too has now passed on. I always admired and enjoyed his iconoclasm and his outrageousness. He was often pretentious, but he was never dull.

"Where's your coat hanger?" Robin asked the AA man. "I can't see any sign of it."

The AA man gave Robin a puzzled look, then he turned to me and said, "I'd have been here half an hour ago if you hadn't told the call centre lady that you were in Australia. That caused a lot of confusion. Apparently she reported your problem to our Sydney office and told them you were in Wagga Wagga. It took them ages to figure out what was really going on and where you actually were. Then they cut out the middle man and contacted us directly."

"I didn't tell her I was in Australia," I protested. "She made that up herself. I told her exactly where I was, but she couldn't find it on her map. Where on Earth is Wagga Wagga?"

He shrugged. "It's almost exactly half way between Sydney and Melbourne," he said. "Anyway, never mind, I'm here now. Can I see your AA membership card, please?"

I put my hand in my pocket to get my wallet. By the time I'd got my membership card out of the wallet, my car door was wide open. The AA man reached inside the car, retrieved my keys, and handed them to me. "Don't bother with the membership card," said the AA man. "I just wanted you to look away so you didn't see what I was doing."

"Are all car doors that easy to open?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "I really can't understand why car thieves always smash the windows to get in. It's so much quicker and quieter to do what I just did and it has the big advantage that you don't have to sit on shards of broken glass when you drive away from the scene of the crime."

"So exactly what did you do to get the door open?" I asked.

He winked, got back in his van and drove away.

"Did you see what he did?" I asked Robin.

"No, I didn't," said Robin. "I blinked and missed the whole thing. But he didn't use a coat hanger, I'm absolutely certain of that."

"Probably he's not allowed to use a coat hanger because they are a protected species during the breeding season," I said.

David D. Levine Arabella of Mars Tor
Shannon Page (Editor) The Usual Path To Publication Book View Café
Gardner Dozois (Editor) Mash Up Titan Books
Michael Swanwick In The Drift Open Road
Colin Wilson The Angry Years Robson Books

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