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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (artemisia vulgaris)

Flee, fly flo flum

We've had a lot of flies this year. I suspect they are attracted by the grapes that are rotting on the vines that grow along our fences. The grapes taste horrible, and this year even the birds have point blank refused to eat them, so the grapes just hang there and rot, filling the garden with a sickly sweet smell that the flies find irresistible.

When the flies get bored with the grapes, they come into the house in search of amusement. On a bad day there can be twenty or more buzzing around and making nuisances of themselves. Chemical warfare has proved to be an inadequate technique for eliminating them. The house is simply too airy and open plan for it to be effective. So I decided to try more primitive weapons...

"What are those?" asked Jake the Dog when I came home from my shopping trip. "They are made out of plastic. I like plastic. Can I chew them?"

"Sorry, Jake," I said. "These are fly swatters and you can't chew them. They have a vital task to perform."

Jake was puzzled. "What's a fly swatter?" he asked.

"I'll show you," I said. "See that fly over there, the one that's crawling up the lounge window?"

"Yes," said Jake. "I can see it. I can smell it as well. It smells like horse poo. I like horse poo. It's very tasty..."

"Watch this!" I instructed and I swatted the fly. Stunned, or possibly dead, the fly fell to the carpet where Jake pounced on it and ate it all up."

"Oh YUM!" said Jake. "Hitting it with the swatter really tenderises the meat. Can I have another one, please?"

"OK," I said. "Here's another one." I walloped another fly, but it was too quick for me and it flew away, sniggering at my ineptitude.

"I'm not going to let the fly get away with insulting you like that," said Jake and he lunged violently at the lounge window where the fly was crawling desperately up what, from its point of view, must have looked like mysteriously solidified air. But, the fly proved to be too agile even for Jake, and the only result of his lunge was a great smear of dog snot all over the window pane. But this proved to be a blessing in disguise for the fly soon came back to the window, landed in the dog snot and became stuck fast. Now that it was unable to escape, I could wallop it with impunity. I did so. It fell to the floor and Jake ate it. "There," he said in tones of deep satisfaction, "serves you right!"

Over the next few days Jake and I refined our fly hunting technique and Jake grew fat and lazy on his new diet. The plague of flies only began to die away when the advent of the cold winter weather made the flies finally slow down and vanish. Jake was very disappointed when this happened. I, on the other hand, was rather relieved.

Since June 1995, David Langford has been publishing a monthly column in SFX magazine. Over the years these columns have been collected in various Langford books. Finally, in June 2016, the magazine editors decided that they could no longer afford to pay for "star writers and illustrations" and therefore Langford's long tenure at the magazine came to an end.  All Good Things, subtitled The Last SFX Visions, contains the final Langford columns plus a handful of extras to bring the total number of entries in the book up to 100. The final SFX column was number 274 – not an auspicious or even a particularly interesting number. What a low note to finish on...

SFX magazine continues to struggle along without Langford, rather to his surprise. One of his columns reports gleefully on the number of magazines that vanished from the world almost as soon as Langford started to write for them. All too often, it seems, the name of Langford in the table of contents has proved to be the kiss of death. But SFX Magazine survived the Langford Curse for 21 years. However as soon as it reached the age of maturity, like all good children it ran away from its formative influences. What effect this will have on its future life remains to be seen.

What is it about a Langford column that makes the material as fresh and as interesting now at the end of its run as it was in the beginning? How, the assembled hordes of fandom demand, can Langford hold our attention for so long? The answer is not hard to find. Langford has a sly observational style that is unfailingly witty, and very often laugh-out-loud funny.

Sometimes he reports simple facts – for example, one column points out that Isaac Asimov wrote a history of the entire world in one volume, but his own autobiography took two volumes. Both statements are incontrovertibly true (I posses all three volumes), but juxtapose them like that and suddenly there's laughter. Also I can't help thinking that Asimov would have greatly appreciated the joke.

Sometimes Langford devotes his column to a report from Thog's Masterclass. This consists of direct quotations from books which contain examples of, shall we say, "differently good prose" to quote Langford himself. One example will suffice. Thog recently discovered a wonderful anatomical peculiarity in Jo Walton's novel Lifelode: "He is forty years old, with a black beard shaped like a spade, a lawyer and a judge..." It is not recorded how Jo Walton, or the many other writers, good, bad and indifferent that Thog has mercilessly mocked over the years, have reacted to his discoveries, but somehow Thog never seems to lack for material and his masterclass never grows stale.

I snorted, chuckled and giggled my way through this collection of columns and I can't help thinking that SFX Magazine has done itself a great disservice by choosing to discontinue them.

My copy of All Good Things is a very handsome limited edition autographed hardback, number 50 of an edition of 50, so clearly I only just got in under the wire. However the paperback is still available from all the usual outlets or directly from the publisher at:

The novel We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor (a name that is not familiar to me) has received much favourable comment. So I decided to read it. It's not bad at all, but it is nowhere as good as a great many people seem to think that it is.

The eponymous Bob is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has sold his software company for enough money to ensure that he never has to work for a living again. He has spent a large part of his fortune with a company that guarantees to freeze his head when he dies in the hope of resurrecting him in some way shape or form at some unspecified time in the future. As the novel opens, Bob is in Las Vegas attending a Science Fiction convention – he's an archetypical nerd, much obsessed with SF in general and with Star Wars, Star Trek and gaming in particular. Crossing a busy Las Vegas street, Bob is struck by a car and duly dies.

He awakens a century later to the discovery that "people" in his situation no longer have any human rights. All are the property of the state and can be used for whatever purpose the state deems fit. Bob has been uploaded into a computer and his destiny is to be the controlling intelligence in an interstellar probe that will explore the nearby stars for habitable planets.

It soon becomes clear that the reason for the curious title of the novel is that Bob's starship is a self replicating Von Neumann probe. What this means in practice is that the ship is equipped with mechanisms that will mine raw materials from the planets it discovers and build copies of itself, each of which will also contain a copy of Bob. So of course it isn't long before there are an awful lot of Bobs to keep track of...

I greatly enjoyed the cleverness of the idea of multiple Bobs and I admired the skill with which the first person narrator, who alternates between Bobs, never gets confused. It turns out that all the Bobs are slightly different as well as being largely the same (which also helps to differentiate them, of course), and there are well argued reasons for those differences as well.  I also enjoyed the galactic explorations and the discoveries that are made.

But I most definitely did not enjoy the heavy handed and rather naive political satire (America has become a repressive theocracy). I hated the excessively twee acronyms that litter the book (to be fair, all the Bobs complain about those as well, but that just makes them even more annoying – I could almost hear the author muttering "Look at me, aren't I a clever dick?" to himself as he coins yet another capitalised double-meaning) and I positively loathed the extraordinarily large number of geeky in-jokes that all too often obscured the narrative point that was being made. For example, Bob describes one character's cowardly tendencies as being rather like Bill Paxton's character in Aliens. Later the character redeems himself slightly and Bob says "I mentally upgraded him to Michael Biehn." I have absolutely no idea what any of this means and therefore, of course I have no mental picture of this character at all. I really don't know what to think of him and therefore his place in the story remains quite undefined, almost arbitrary. The novel is stuffed to overflowing with these kinds of references and anyone who doesn't share the author's immersive knowledge of the minutiae of a myriad obscure fandoms will simply have no way at all of getting into the story. I am reasonably au fait with much of the nerd world, but I doubt that I understood more than half of the references. The more general reader will be completely locked out and will, I am sure, soon give up on the book in disgust. Limiting your potential sales in this deliberate manner seems to me to be very close to a career destroying move...

Allen Steele's new novel Avengers of the Moon is a return to the good old fashioned space opera of almost a century ago. It's a tale of Captain Future told with the full approval of the literary estate of Edmund Hamilton, the man who first set the Captain's story down in print. Steele gives us a real homage to Hamilton's original character (in today's rather repulsive jargon, I suppose you could almost call it a reboot). He puts the somewhat wonky science on a more respectable footing. The characters are not idiots propelled by a mechanical "written by the numbers" plot. Nevertheless the book is so firmly rooted in the past of its genre that sometimes it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Certainly the good guys win and the bad guys get their just desserts. But did the good guy really have to let so many people die in pursuit of his own ends? Perhaps he doesn't have much of a conscience. Or maybe he's a sociopath. This casual way of life and death works well in a pulp novel when the characters are cardboard. It sits slightly more uneasily in a modern novel where the writer has tried so hard to make the people feel real.

Fallout is Sara Paretsky's eighteenth novel about private detective V, I. Warshawski, but don't let that put you off. I stands alone quite nicely and it tells a good story.

Warshawski is hired to leave her home turf of Chicago and head out to Kansas in search of a missing actress and the man she has hired to film a brief documentary of her beginnings. Soon Warshawski is up to her neck in metaphorical muck and bullets. The case proves to be a pleasingly complex one revolving around racial discrimination, political machinations and microbiological research (there's an almost mad scientist involved whose character is probably a little homage to Sara Paretsky's own father who was himself a microbiologist at the University of Kansas and whose research interests were similar to those that lie at the heart of this novel).

The story sucked me in and kept me turning the pages even though, in the bright light of day, the plot is more than a little implausible. Nevertheless I was convinced, albeit briefly, and I kept going because I really did want to know what happened next, and because I really love the complex character of V. I. Warshawski herself.

Over the years I have seen several reviews of Paretsky's novels that criticise the books for their left wing viewpoint and some that accuse her of being unpatriotic because of the views her novels present. Certainly Sara Paretsky does seem to have an agenda and most of her novels do highlight social or political issues that she feels need to be addressed. In Fallout she tilts at the windmills of racial prejudice and the extraordinary powers that the Department of Homeland Security uses to ride roughshod over the promises guaranteed by the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights – these are issues she has addressed before and doubtless she will address them again in future books.

Personally, I fail to understand why an author's political views should be grounds for dismissing their novels as unworthy. As long as the book tells an enthralling story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, what do the politics matter? Indeed, I feel that kind of subtext can add some intellectual salt to the stew and make it ever so much more tasty. I admit that I share Sara Paretsky's political opinions (though I suspect she might find me rather too much to the left of her on some issues) but that doesn't change my opinion on to how to judge the worth of her books or the worth of books by any other writer with a political point to make. After all, I am also a huge fan of Robert Heinlein's novels, many of which preach a right wing agenda that I find utterly abhorrent. Nevertheless I continue to re-read his novels with great pleasure. So it goes.

Fallout is not the best Warshawski novel (that privilege, I feel, belongs the eleventh novel Blacklist) but it is definitely up there, high on the list of contenders.

The Hanging Club by Tony Parsons is set in London in roughly the present day. A group of vigilantes is abducting people who have been convicted of serious crimes, but who, in the eyes of the vigilantes, have been inadequately punished by the courts. They take the perpetrators and hang them by the neck until they are dead. They film the executions and post the movies on social media. The vigilantes have a twitter account @AlbertPierrepointUK and their posts have the hashtag #bringitback. Albert Pierrepoint, of course, was the most famous British hangman of the twentieth century. He hanged something on the order of 500 people, more than any other executioner in the British judicial records.

The police, in the person of Detective Constable Max Wolfe, must find the vigilante gang and bring them to justice, for the law must be seen to be impartial and, like them or loathe them, the vigilantes are committing crimes. They are, however, very popular with the man in the street and that doesn't make Max's job any easier.

The theme of the novel, of course, is the perceived dichotomy between what many people view as an appropriate punishment for a crime and the actual sentences that are handed out. There's a long and complex moral issue underlying that. Where does the balance lie between punishment, justice and rehabilitation? It's a difficult question that does not admit of any easy answers, no matter what the tweets all say, and Tony Parsons juggles his moral and ethical balls with consummate skill, keeping them all high in the air.

Perhaps the last word should go to Albert Pierrepoint himself. In his autobiography he said, "Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge."

Now ask yourself if revenge is the same as justice?

Meanwhile Jake got yet another significant rash on his willy which quickly spread over all the way up to and across his tummy. "It itches," he complained and he spent so much time scratching and licking at the rash that he became quite bald, red and inflamed on his lower body. It wasn't the first time this had happened and we knew exactly what to do. Off we went to the vet where yet again we spent a vast fortune on the steroids that eventually reduced the inflammation. The rash went away, for the moment at least. "That's better," said Jake in a very relieved tone. "I've stopped itching now." Slowly his fur grew back and he started to look more like a dog again.

"This is happening rather a lot," I said to the vet. "Is there any other alternative to these regular steroids that we have been subjecting him to?"

"Well," said the vet thoughtfully, "we can take a blood sample and it have it screened so that we can find out just what it is that he is allergic to. Once we identify that, we can see about keeping him away from whatever is causing the reaction. It's rather expensive though – the testing is done in America and it's very, very thorough. They examine a huge range of possible allergens."

"How much?" I asked.

"About $500," said the vet.

"We've already spent at least that amount of money on visits to you for consultation and drug prescriptions," I pointed out. "And this rash is occurring so frequently that it won't be very long before we'll have spent that amount again. After all, the cost of the allergy test is only the cost of five more visits here."

"Hang about," said Jake, who had been listening anxiously, "Are you trying to reduce the number of times I come to see the vet? I like coming here. I get lots of hugs and cuddles and heaps of treats. It's wonderful!"

"Don't worry, Jake," I said. "We'll make sure that you see all your friends here as often as we can. I'll bring you with me every time I buy another sack of biscuits, and if we ever happen to be passing, we'll always make sure to pop in to say hello."

"Oh," said Jake, mollified. "I suppose that will have to do."

"OK," said the vet, "I'll take the blood sample and we'll send it away for testing."

I left the vet with a considerably lighter credit card and a new supply of steroids. Jake left the vet with an empty paw and a tummy full of treats. "That was nice," he said with satisfaction.

A month or so later the results of the test came back and Jake and I took another trip to the vet to discuss the results. "Well," said the vet, "the good news is that he's not allergic to flies so you aren't going to have to make any changes to his diet."

"What's the bad news?" I asked.

"You know all that green stuff that covers the ground in the park?" asked the vet. "It grows in people's back yards and sometimes in their front yards as well."

"You mean grass?" I asked.

"Yes," said the vet. "I believe that's what it's called. Jake is very, very allergic to it."

"Any particular sort of grass?" I asked. "There are very many different kinds, you know. I learned that from one of David Attenborough's programmes. They're very educational."

"Indeed they are," said the vet. "And it is true that there are a lot of different kinds of grass. As it happens, Jake is allergic to all of them."

"Goodness me," I said, shocked. "It's a good job he never became a farm dog. He wouldn't have had much of a life."

"No," said the vet. "He'd have turned into a bald blister on legs within minutes of herding his first sheep into a paddock. You simply can't avoid grass. It's ubiquitous. He's very allergic to daisies as well, so summer would have been an extra torment to him, poor thing."

Jake looked shocked. "But I always sniff the daisies when they are in flower," he said. "I like the smell, particularly after my friend Oscar has christened them." He looked thoughtful. "Oscar is too tiny to use trees or lampposts," he explained to us, "so he has to make do with daisies."

"Is Jake allergic to anything else?" I asked, just in case.

"Yes," said the vet. "He also has a particularly nasty reaction to Artemisia Vulgaris, more commonly known as mugwort."

"Oh no!" said Jake, horrified. "Does that mean I've got to stop reading Harry Potter novels?"

David Langford All Good Things Steel Quill Books
Dennis E. Taylor We Are Legion (We Are Bob) Worldbuilders Press
Allen Steele Avengers of the Moon Tor
Sara Paretsky Fallout HarperCollins
Tony Parsons The Hanging Club Century
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