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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Ah. Oh ah, oh ah. Oh ah, oh ah. Ringtonus irritans)

Tarzan of the Apps

No matter what it is that you want to do, the switched on twenty-first century person will inform you loftily that "There's an app for that". Generally speaking, they are quite right – the craziest of ideas are bound to be embodied in an app somewhere, and to take advantage of this lunacy, all you have to do is install the app on your phone. Perhaps the most ridiculous app I have ever encountered is one that you can access when you go to the cinema. You tell the app what movie you are watching, and your phone will vibrate when you can safely go for a pee without missing anything significant in the plot...

In my experience, most apps are heavily over-engineered. Indeed, sometimes the bells, the whistles and the chromium-plated dancing girls are so overwhelming that it almost appears as if the designer of the app has completely lost sight of the original idea that the app was implemented to address in the first place!

I went looking for an app that would record how many steps I took on my daily walks with Jake the Dog. I also wanted the app to inform me about the number of kilometres that Jake and I had trudged through together – the action of converting steps to kilometres is a task far beyond my feeble mental arithmetic skills. Perhaps I should write an app to do it for me...

The app I eventually downloaded certainly provides me with all the basic information that I need, but it also has a huge number of other functions, none of which I have any interest whatsoever in using. If I let it, the app will send a text message to all my friends at the end of the day so that I can boast about how far I've walked. It actively encourages me to join groups of like-minded people and compete against them. It really, really wants me to upload all my data to a cloud server so that total strangers can compare their own efforts to mine, and it wants to draw complicated graphs that will attempt to define my progress in several arbitrary and statistically dubious ways.

The app requires me to set a goal for the day, and every 5000 steps or so it displays a congratulatory progress message on the phone's screen along with a little reminder of how far I still have to go before I reach my goal. When I do actually reach my goal the screen explodes in a hysterical paroxysm of delight! Fireworks erupt from the charging socket and triumphal music pours out of the speakers at full eardrum-exploding volume. A jubilant and very detailed email is sent directly to the Queen, along with a Blind Carbon Copy to the Prime Minister, so that they can both stop worrying about me and start getting on with their day.

Once I get home from my walk, all I want to do is rest my tired feet. If I set the phone on vibrate, the app will give me a very satisfying and restful foot massage while at the same time taking surreptitious photographs of my bunions which it transmits to MI5 when I'm not looking. I might be exaggerating a little here (only a tiny bit!), but I really can't be sure about that because the app has endless menus full of options that I don't understand, together with a series of utterly illiterate help screens all of which inform me that selecting option A will let me do A, without ever defining exactly what A might actually be or why on Earth I might want to do it in the first place...

But as a side effect of all this nonsense, at least I get to confirm that I really do achieve a minimum of 10,000 steps a day. Actually, most days, it's usually closer to 15,000 steps. And since, as any fule kno, 1 step equals 0.0006577878837095988305993178496020789345 kilometres (or thereabouts) I am managing to walk somewhere between six and half and nine and three-quarter kilometres a day. To a first approximation. So look upon my works, ye couch potatoes, and despair!

Martin Millar's new novel Kink Me, Honey is a story about people who live the BDSM lifestyle. I read all the way through it snorting, giggling and chuckling with glee. The plot, such as it is, tells of episodes in the lives of various members of Sex Orbit, an online fetish site.

The bulk of the book concerns two close friends – Gina who is recovering from a car accident and who remains wheelchair bound for most of the book, and Ark, a lovelorn dom who feels quite safe in confiding the intimate details of his sex life to Gina because she is completely asexual and he can approach her as a friend rather than as a potential sexual partner. Despite her asexuality, Gina is utterly fascinated by Ark's sexual adventures. She is constantly pressing him for more and more information as she tries to help him with his problems.  

We also meet Mig, who is spending much of her time being photographed, dressed in extraordinarily revealing fetish gear, in each of the few red telephone kiosks that still remain in London, much to the consternation of passers-by. And let's not forget the lesbian couple whose chief preoccupation is to dress up in Nazi uniforms and act out the delights of the torture chamber for their own private pleasure. Unfortunately they keep receiving visits from well-meaning family members which greatly curtails their opportunities to indulge their passions. You simply can't have decent torture-sex when your mum is sleeping in the next room. The couple become increasingly frustrated as the novel progresses...  

The various plot threads are interspersed with random posts from the Sex Orbit web forum (often badly spelled) together with adverts for various peculiar sex aids that can be bought at quite reasonable prices from the site's very own web shop. Assuming, of course, that the software works. Often it doesn't, and Sex Orbit is actively looking to recruit a webmaster who can fix all the problems with the site.

I don't live the BDSM lifestyle, but I have a friend who does so I showed him the book and asked him for his opinion. He told me that he perfectly understood why I found the story so hilariously funny, but he himself found it quite depressing because it was all far too true to life. He said that he knew each and every one of these people very well indeed... All of which proves, of course, that Martin Millar has captured the lifestyle perfectly. I suspect that in Kink Me, Honey Martin Millar has done for BDSM people what Sharyn McCrumb did for SF people in her marvellously funny Bimbos of the Death Sun.  I think that my friend found Millar's novel depressing for the same reasons that many SF fans found McCrumb's novel depressing – when you are watching your own circus, with your own monkeys on display, you tend to laugh a little less than you otherwise would.

Be warned, this book contains a lot of very explicit descriptions of many rather peculiar sexual practices. If you find that kind of thing upsetting or offensive, then this is not the book for you. But if you can enjoy them for what they are without making any value judgements then I'm sure that Kink Me, Honey will have you in stitches. Metaphorically speaking...

It seems to be my month for sexually explicit books. Lawrence Block has a new novel which is stuffed full of completely gratuitous and extremely explicit (though not at all kinky) sex scenes. The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes is beautifully written (it's by Lawrence Block; how could it not be beautifully written?) but it tells a very slight and not very interesting story. I strongly suspect that the sex scenes are there simply to make up the page count. You could cut them out without affecting the story in any way shape or form, though the book would end up being half the size it currently is. Perhaps that would be no bad thing.

Because the intimate detail described in these scenes is so unnecessary to the story, I confess that I did find them a little bit offensive. I would have much preferred that they not be there. Isn't that odd? I loved the explicit and very kinky sex in Martin Millar's book because it was entirely appropriate and completely necessary for the plot, but I hated the relatively straightforward heterosexual interludes in Block's book because they really didn't need to be there. Oh well, at least Block's novel is very suitable for a lot of one-handed reading if your tastes happen to run that way.

What about the story? Ah yes, that. I almost forgot. Private eye Doak Miller goes undercover to catch a woman who wants to hire a hit man to murder her husband. Unfortunately he falls in love with her. All he has to do now is get her husband out of the way. Oh...

While we're on the subject of sex – HarperCollins are in the throes of republishing a lot of Brian W. Aldiss's back list as ebooks under the generic imprint of The Friday Project. I've been snapping them up as and when they appear and I've just bought The Primal Urge, which was first published in 1961. It's an early and extremely funny Aldiss novel about British attitudes to sex. A law is passed in Britain requiring everyone to have a small silver disc implanted in their forehead. Whenever a person is feeling sexually excited, the disc glows pink. Clearly this removes all ambiguity from social situations. Everybody knows exactly where they stand. What could possibly go wrong?

It's an utterly delightful book – and very, very British. The writing style reminds me a lot of Kingsley Amis, and the novel itself is full of very barbed and witty social commentary. I think I first read it when I was about fifteen. I loved it then, and I absolutely loved it all over again when I re-read it this time around. It truly is an absolute delight.

A very popular kind of app is one that will play your music for you. Effectively it turns your phone into a fruity mp3 pod person (Invasion of the Body Snatchers anyone?). I have very simple requirements for such a music player. All my music is arranged in a hierarchy, alphabetically by artist. Within each artist is an alphabetical list of albums and within each album I have a numeric list of tracks. All I want to do is browse around this structure, choose a particular album by a particular artist and then have the app play all the tracks on the album one by one. What could be simpler?

But that's not how music playing apps work.

One and all, they refuse to play any music for me until they have "scanned" my music files. This means that they completely ignore the nice structure I have already set up for them. Instead, they read through each music file in turn and then build exactly the same structure as mine in an internal database of their own. In order to play my music, I have to select it from the internal database rather than from my own files.

The apps obtain the information for their internal database from metadata stored in the actual music files themselves. Very few people ever have this metadata set up properly – personally, I am quite conscientious about trying to get it correct, but it's a rather hard job to do. Generally speaking, you need special software in order to do it properly and the software is often quite complex and difficult to use. Consequently I am painfully aware that much of my metadata is incorrect. As a result, entire albums vanish from my view once they are sucked into the app's database. I can see them quite clearly in my local hierarchy, but because the metadata is of dubious quality, the music player app insists they don't exist and therefore they cannot be played.

Then we have the knotty problem of playlists. Many music player apps refuse to let you simply play an album. They will only play items on a playlist. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in constructing playlists – the thought of browsing slowly through all my umpteen thousand music files and adding them to arbitrary playlists fills me with a feeling of existential dread. All I ever want to do is play a selected album. But because of the nature of the app I must first go through the utterly unnecessary step of adding the album to a playlist before I can finally relax and enjoy the music.

Music apps too are not immune from the kitchen sink syndrome of feeping creaturism. There's all the usual nonsense of automatically telling my friends what music I'm currently listening to (as if they cared – I suspect that if I implemented this feature, everyone I know would quickly blacklist me because of all the spam I was sending them).  In addition I have the option of storing all my music in the cloud so that I can listen to it anywhere until the music goes away when the cloud provider has an oopsy and/or goes spectacularly bankrupt – at the moment my music is stored on a disk that is plugged in to my home network so I can only listen to it when I'm actually at home. This suits me fine because actually that's the only place where I listen to music anyway.

Then there are all the hidden features that cannot be accessed from the app menus and which are not discussed at all in the primitive and badly spelled documentation. I'm fairly certain, for example, that my current music app is routinely reporting me to the Society for the Persecution of Morris Dancing because every so often my Morris Dancing music starts to play backwards instead of forwards. Mind you, that's not really much of a problem because only the trained ear of an expert can actually tell the difference. It only becomes a significant problem when you dance along with the music and attempt to perform a Reverse Double Arkwright with Counter Clockwise Lunge... You can easily break all three of your legs when you try doing that to a backwards tune!

The Friday Project from HarperCollins is not the only exciting ebook initiative. The SF Gateway is making literally thousands of classic SF and fantasy titles available as ebooks. Most of them probably haven't had a paper edition in decades. Many are quite unobtainable, unless you are willing to pay out several small fortunes for the few copies that do occasionally surface in the second-hand market. One such book is Stonehenge – Where Atlantis Died by Harry Harrison and Leon E. Stover. I can't remember the last time I saw a copy of this on a bookshop shelf. It really does seem to have been out of print forever, and that's a shame because it tells a rattling good yarn.

The title gives it all away of course. It's a novel about the building of Stonehenge. Harrison and Stover have done a lot of historical research and they've come up with an intriguing theory about how and why the building might have happened. Unfortunately for them, archaeological discoveries keep pushing the date of the building of Stonehenge further and further back in time and their scenario has long since been invalidated (maybe that's why the book has stayed out of print). But I'm not sure that it really matters. The book still tells a damn good story despite that.

People from the Bronze Age kingdoms of the Mediterranean have come to Britain to mine for tin which is a very rare and very precious mineral. Without tin, copper cannot be turned into bronze and without bronze weapons, no kingdom can keep itself safe. Naturally the Stone Age inhabitants of the British Isles are not at all happy about these incursions which they see as a threat to their way of life. The stage is set for conflict...

Not all of the Gateway books are fiction – I have recently bought and read The Entropy Exhibition by Colin Greenland. It is a detailed analysis of the so-called New Wave movement which completely redefined the nature of science fiction in the 1960s. I missed this book when it was first published in 1983. It seemed to go out of print almost immediately and I never managed to track a copy down. So I was quite delighted to see it made available as an ebook.

Michael Moorcock edited the SF magazine New Worlds for almost a decade from the mid-1960s. He strongly encouraged his writers to develop new kinds of writing with which to explore traditional themes. This was the birth of the new wave. Its guiding philosophy was the metaphor of entropy, a thermodynamic idea that sees the energy of the universe decline irresistibly into disorder and chaos.

The Entropy Exhibition mainly discusses the writings of Michael Moorcock, J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss, who were the three stalwarts of the new wave movement. Other, more minor, authors are mentioned in passing but the bulk of the book concerns itself with the big three.

It's very nice to see the new wave discussed from a proper literary perspective with none of the shrill hysteria that tended to dominate discussions back in the days when the movement was first ploughing its own, sometimes rather lonely, literary furrows. At the time, it was a very controversial experiment which excited great passions, both for and against. But now that the furore has died down, Colin Greenland has managed to give us a thoughtful, interesting and (dare I say it?) definitive discussion of what the new wave was really all about.  

While we're on the subject of Michael Moorcock, let's consider London Peculiar. This is a collection of Moorcock's non-fiction, a companion piece to the earlier Into the Media Web which was published by Savoy Books a decade or so ago. There is some overlap between the two collections. However the earlier book had a cut off date of 2006. London Peculiar includes quite a lot of post-2006 pieces and is definitely complementary to Into the Media Web.

There's a lot of autobiography in the book. Moorcock paints very evocative images of growing up in post-war London, playing with his childhood friends in the bomb sites that littered the city, and exploring the jungles of rose bay willow herb that grew up through the wreckage. The articles are full of very quotable and often very funny lines: "all my girlfriends wore black and thought a lot about suicide".

Moorcock has a lot to say about his fellow authors – we learn much from these pieces about his relationships with Angela Carter, J. G. Ballard and Jack Trevor Story (all of them New Worlds stalwarts). To that extent, the collection can also be regarded as a companion piece to Greenland's new wave analysis. Everything is connected...

Apps apply (so to speak) in a lot of unusual situations. Not so very long ago, the village where I live was struck by a campylobacter infection in the water supply and several thousand people became rather ill as a result. Many of the people who live here are retirees, some of them quite feeble, and so the illness was potentially very serious. At a public meeting held with the council to discuss how the problem could have been better handled, and how the council could have better communicated inportant information to the people of the village, the Mayor extolled the virtue of an app. Most of his elderly audience stared at him with blank incomprehension. An app?

I installed the app on my phone. It proved to be very keen to inform me about any disasters that it thought were heading my way, and it told me what I needed to do to avoid them. It spent several days telling me of the potential for gale force winds which it claimed were due to arrive any minute now. These generally manifested themselves as light breezes that scarcely ruffled the fur on Jake's tail when we went for our walks. The app seemed to be utterly obsessed with wind to the point of monomania. It never sent me notifications about any other potential disasters. It seemed to be quite uninterested in storms and tempests, and it remained completely silent on the day when every drop of water on the planet fell out the sky over my village. All the gardens turned into primeval swamps and raging torrents of water surged through the storm drains. Roads became rivers, rivers became lakes and lakes became seas. The app couldn't have cared less. There wasn't any wind that day...

To while away the time between wind warnings, the app regaled me with tedious lectures that told me how to prepare myself to cope with a natural disaster. All this information about preparedness has been publicly available for half a century or more and the app contained no new insights. Bored, I deleted it.

The next day a series of gale force winds took me completely by surprise. They were so strong that they toppled some trees in the park where Jake and I go walking. As a great twentieth century philosopher once said: So it goes...

In place of the app recommended by the Mayor, I installed an app from GeoNet, an organisation charged with monitoring earthquakes. This app is really very useful indeed. When I wake up in the middle of the night to find that the bed is bouncing up and down, the walls of the house are flexing in and out, crockery is falling out of cupboards and smashing on the floor, and a terrified dog is burrowing under the blankets, the app sends me a notification which tells me that an earthquake is taking place – just in case I hadn't realised. It is strangely comforting to have your suspicions confirmed in this way.

Uniquely among apps, the GeoNet app seems quite uncluttered. There is no mechanism for sharing my favourite earthquakes with my friends and I don't have the ability to rate the strength of my earthquakes against the feebleness of theirs. The app never suggests that I register my earthquakes in the cloud and, as far as I can tell, it doesn't contact the earthquake police and accuse me of fracking whenever I dig a hole in my garden. I fully expect that these oversights will be addressed in the next release of the app.

What a pleasure it is to see a new novel by Robert Charles Wilson. Last Year envisages a technological future which can open tunnels into a past time. However interacting with the past clearly changes that past's historical progress. Because of those changes, the future that this version of the past will lead to can never be the future that actually opened the tunnel. So, from the point of view of this future time, there are an infinite number of past times, none of which are its actual past. And from the point of view of the world of the past, everyone knows that there will definitely be a future, but it won't be the future with which the people are currently interacting...

The story proper takes place in 19th-century Ohio. The tunnel from a future has been operating for most of a decade. A small city has grown up around the tunnel opening. Visitors from the future come on sight-seeing tours and many locals earn a good living by catering to them. For various reasons, the tunnel is deemed to be approaching the end of its useful life. Soon it will close down, leaving the natives with nothing more than memories and some odds and ends of high technology.

Jesse Cullum has fallen in love with a woman from this future. Before the tunnel closes for good he needs to find a way to follow her back home.

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best time travel story I've read in decades. It's ingenious and it's touching. I really felt for the characters and the problems they faced. As far as I'm concerned, this one has "award winner" written all over it. Unfortunately Robert Charles Wilson seldom gets nominated for awards; I have no idea why. I've loved every book he's ever written. But it seems that his talents are not very widely known. I think that's a shame.

Wilson's tunnel technology seems tailor made for the writing of sequels. After all, given that there are an infinite number of past times and given that each past time has an infinite number of possible futures, it's completely impossible ever to run out of material for future novels! However Wilson doesn't really do sequels, and on the rare occasions that he has indulged himself this way, the sequels have proved to be very different indeed from their predecessors. Yet another reason, if reason were needed, to admire his writing skills.

Miniatures is a collection of John Scalzi's very short fiction published in a limited numbered and autographed edition by Subterranean Press. My copy is number 1475 of 1500. It's a very short book because Scalzi has not written very much short fiction. His brain seems to work best in novel sized chunks. Nevertheless this remains a very entertaining collection and as Scalzi himself remarks, if you don't like the piece you are currently reading, just turn the page. There'll be another one there.

These very short pieces are a magnificent showcase for Scalzi's sense of humour. He truly has an enviable ability to milk a situation for laughs. You see it a lot in the non-fiction pieces that he publishes on his web site, but you seldom see it in his novels. He has only written three novels that are intended to be funny (and only two of them actually are).

Miniatures is a very welcome addition indeed to the Scalzi bibliography.

Another major app that occupies far too much of my time is one that lets me read electronic books. Whenever I have a spare few minutes, such as when I'm standing in a queue or sitting on the bus, I make sure to whip out my gadget and read a few words. I greatly enjoy the ability to carry an entire library around in my pocket and I always make the most of it.

However, just like all the other apps on my phone, the electronic book reading apps do have their annoyances. Whenever I read a sexy bit my phone glows pink and plays "The Stripper" at low volume so that passers by can point at me and snigger knowingly. Particularly salacious scenes are automatically forwarded to the nunnery of my choice.

At random intervals, generally when the digits that display the time form a prime number, the app pops up a screen that threatens to tell me how the story ends unless I immediately rate the app highly in the play store. I always succumb to this threat. I really don't like spoilers.

Electronic books appeal greatly to my innate baby-boomer desire for instant gratification. We are the generation that went on protest marches and chanted:

"What do we want?"


"When do we want it?"


And I've never quite outgrown that desire. So, of course, I simply cannot resist the urge to click on a link and, just like that, bingo! There's another new book in my library. As a result of my complete inability to resist buying just one more book, I have so many volumes sitting in my virtual to-be-read pile that I no longer have enough time left in my life to read them all. Clearly what I urgently need now is something that will read all those books for me so that I don't have to do it myself. I wonder if there's an app for that?

Martin Millar Kink Me, Honey Createspace
Lawrence Block The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes Hard Case Crime
Brian W. Aldiss The Primal Urge HarperCollins
Harry Harrison and Leon E. Stover Stonehenge – Where Atlantis Died Gateway
Colin Greenland The Entropy Exhibition Gateway
Michael Moorcock London Peculiar Merlin Press
Robert Charles Wilson Last Year Tor
John Scalzi Miniatures Subterranean Press
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