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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (mens felix)

The Logic of Cats

"I have an ambition," Gilbert the Kitten said one day to his best friend Jake the Dog while they were lying together in a patch of sunshine.

"What’s your ambition?" asked Jake. "Do tell."

"I want to eat an entire human being before I’m six months old," said Gilbert. "I’ve been practising on Robin and I’m getting really good at it. I’m sure I’ll be able to manage a whole person soon."

Jake looked shocked. He’d never considered eating the people he lived with, even though they did taste rather yummy when he licked them. He had always just contented himself with sniffs and kisses. Nibbling was quite out of the question. Then he spotted the obvious flaw in Gilbert’s logic. "That’s a bit short sighted of you," he said. "We are locked in the house and our regular food is shut away in the pantry. We can’t open any of the doors by ourselves. Our thumbs aren’t opposed to the idea, but our fingers can’t quite manage it. So the reality is that we’d be quite helpless if you eat the people."

"Well, I could keep starvation at bay by eating you once I’d finished with them," said Gilbert thoughtfully. "But you’re right. The inability to cope with doors could be a bit of a problem. Perhaps I should restrict myself to just eating their toes..."

"I’m really not at all comfortable with the idea of you biting lumps out of our people," said Jake. "After all, they are gods, in charge of everything. Omniscient, you know. Probably omnipotent as well."

"Rubbish," said Gilbert scornfully. "They are really, really dumb. I’m only a kitten and I know much more about how the world works than they do."

"I’m not sure I believe that," said Jake.

"OK," said Gilbert, "I’ll prove it to you. The other day I was round the back of the TV set chewing on a power cable, as one does..."

"I’ve never understood why you chew power cables," interrupted Jake. "Alan and Robin get really upset when we go anywhere near anything that plugs in to the mains. I ate a cellphone charger shortly after I moved in and they went ballistic! Mind you, it was worth it. There were some very tasty resistors in that charger, quite the best ones I’ve ever come across. But I digress. Tell me, why do you chew power cables?"

"I’m studying electromagnetic phenomena," explained Gilbert. "Just the other day I derived Maxwell’s field equations from first principles, based on measurements that I’d taken when I was behind the TV. It was an extremely elegant derivation, and I was very proud of myself until I discovered that Maxwell had done it first, more than 150 years ago, damn him."

"That’s a shame," said Jake sympathetically. "How did you find out that Maxwell got there before you?"

"I walked over the keyboard on Alan’s computer," said Gilbert, "and Google gave me the information straight away."

"That was clever of you," said Jake, impressed.

"I thought so," said Gilbert. "And while I was on the computer, I made Alan’s web browser go full screen. Then I took 23 screen shots of what I’d done."

"Alan must have enjoyed that," said Jake.

"I’m sure he did," said Gilbert. "And as a reward, he taught me a lot of interesting new words."

"That was very generous of him," said Jake. "But you were telling me why you think Robin and Alan are dumb."

"Oh yes," said Gilbert. "So I was. Well, they dragged me out from behind the TV. I spat and swore at them, but it did me no good. Then they started piling cushions around the TV to try and stop me from going back again. As if that’s going to have any effect! Don’t they know that kittens can teleport?

"That evening Robin and Alan settled down to watch the television. Alan pressed a button on the remote control but nothing happened. The TV just sat there refusing to turn on. Robin tried with the spare remote, but that didn’t work either. Alan changed the batteries in the remotes, but it didn’t make any difference. So all evening long they had to keep getting up to use the manual controls on the TV itself whenever they wanted the set to do anything. They really didn’t like doing that at all, and by the end of the evening they were seriously considering buying a new TV because this one was obviously broken. Silly buggers hadn’t realised that one of the barrier cushions was right in front of the infra-red sensor and it was blocking the signal from the remote control, so of course nothing was working. They really are very, very dumb people."

"I suppose you knew what the problem was straight away," said Jake.

"Of course I did," said Gilbert. "It’s an obvious lemma in the derivation of Maxwell’s equations. It should be apparent to the meanest intellect. But it never occurred to Alan and Robin."

"So what happened?" asked Jake. "Did they buy a new television set?"

"Of course not," said Gilbert. "I fixed the problem for them. I simply nudged the cushion out of the way a bit when they weren’t looking. That exposed the sensor and suddenly the remote control started working again as if by magic."

"How did you get Alan and Robin to try the remote control again?" asked Jake. "By that time they must have been certain that the system was irretrievably broken."

"I knocked the remote onto the floor," said Gilbert, "and then I jumped up and down on it until the television turned itself on. They found the demonstration quite persuasive."

"They must have been pleased that they didn’t have to go shopping for a new TV after all," said Jake.

"Not a bit of it," said Gilbert. "They just shouted at me for shredding the cushion. Ungrateful buggers..."

"You just can’t win when you’re a kitten," said Jake

"No," said Gilbert. "But I take consolation in the fact that kittens can do this." He batted a scrap of paper that was lying on the floor and then he stalked it as it skittered away. He leaped upon it when it wasn’t looking, killed it stone dead and then sent it bouncing across the carpet again. He hunkered down for another chase, wiggling his bottom so as to line himself up properly.

"Why do you keep doing that?" asked Jake.

"Doing what?"

"Chasing bits of paper and bits of plastic all over the house and then throwing them away and doing it all over again."

"It’s educational," said Gilbert. "I’m learning all about Newton’s Laws of Motion. It’s very important to understand Newton’s laws when you’re a cat. You can’t catch a bird or a mouse without a bit of Newton being involved. Vectors, you know. Vectors are vital."

Jake looked puzzled. "What’s a vector?"

"I’m not sure," said Gilbert. "I haven’t got to that page in the textbook yet. But there’s a whole chapter all about vectors in the table of contents, so they must be important."

"You’re a bit of a girly swot on the quiet, aren’t you?" said Jake.

"No!" Gilbert denied the accusation vehemently. "I’ll prove it to you. Let’s play a game."

"That’s a good idea," said Jake. "I like games. Shall we play chase?"

"OK," said Gilbert. He sat back on his haunches and clenched his fists. He took a left jab at Jake's nose and followed it up with a roundhouse right that made Jake go cross-eyed. Jake jumped about six feet backwards and shook his head. "That’s not chase," he complained. "Don’t you know the rules?"

"Of course not," said Gilbert. "I’m a kitten. I’m only fourteen weeks old. I don’t know anything. Come back and let me hit you again."

"No thanks," said Jake. "I think I’ll go and play tug'o'war with Alan. He’s really good at tug'o'war."

"That’s an excellent idea," said Gilbert. "He needs a bit of intellectual stimulation."

One of the definitive SF collections is Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales From the White Hart in which patrons of the eponymous public house tell some very tall tales indeed. The tongues are pressed so firmly into the cheeks of the tale tellers that they cause unsightly bulges. The stories are extremely clever, and very funny, in their own quietly understated way. And now, as an homage to Arthur C. Clarke and to the White Hart itself, Newcon Press has published Fables From the Fountain in which several contemporary authors put some equally tall (and sometimes extremely dog shaggy) tales into the mouths of the patrons of a pub called the Fountain

These kinds of stories have quite a respectable pedigree. They probably began with Lord Dunsany whose narrator, a certain Jorkens, indulged himself with a lot of straight-faced, leg-pulling effrontery at his club. Dunsany must have been very fond of joking with Jorkens because he wrote a huge number of stories starring him. They were eventually published in five substantial volumes. That’s a lot of words… Time has caught up with some of the Jorkens stories, and one or two of them are now starting to look more than a little naive in places. But the majority of them still read very well today and they are well worth searching out.

L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt continued the trend in several curate-eggish stories that were published as Tales From Gavagan’s Bar. Spider Robinson entered the fray with some stories and novels set in Callahan’s Cross Time Saloon. The best of these are very good indeed, but the worst of them are embarrassingly bad. Unfortunately not everyone can agree on which of the stories are the good ones. You pays your money and you takes your chance... Larry Niven also wrote a few rather ponderous stories in the same vein which were collected by the bartender of The Draco Tavern.

But Clarke’s White Hart stories stand head and shoulders above the rest and they were the direct inspiration of Fables From the Fountain which doesn’t quite measure up to the standards of the master, but certainly runs him a very close race indeed.

Continuing with the Arthur C. Clarke theme, Newcon Press has also recently published an anthology of stories to celebrate both the centenary of Clarke’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the Clarke/Kubrick collaboration on 2001 – A Space Odyssey. The book is called 2001 – An Odyssey In Words and every story in the collection is exactly 2001 words long; a charming and endearing conceit. Thank goodness for word processors. I’d hate to have to write to a constraint like that with only a typewriter to pound out the words, and only my fingers and toes to count them with…

The stories are great fun, well written and thoughtful. As an added bonus they are stuffed full of explicit and implicit references to Clarke’s own stories and novels. Reading them and playing the game of spot the Clarkism definitely adds an extra frisson to the experience.

The authors appearing in the collection are all previous nominees and winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award (a British award for the best SF novel published in the previous year). It has been presented annually since 1987 and one of the nominees was our own Phillip Mann, for his superb novel The Disestablishment of Paradise. His story in this collection is called I Saw Three Ships. It’s a very Clarkean story, set on the International Space Station, the Kermadec trench and the dark side of the moon (all three of them, to a certain extent anyway, Clarke’s very own stamping ground). I can’t help but feel that Sir Arthur would have thoroughly approved of this story. It cleverly combines the twin themes of scientific advancement and mysticism that always wove themselves inextricably through the very best of Sir Arthur’s stories. My only complaint (if it is a complaint) is that the 2001 word limit makes the story seem quite rushed, and as a result, the details are sometimes glossed over in a rather sketchy manner. I’d love to see the ideas that drive this story expanded into a novella or perhaps even a novel. Phillip! Are you listening?

The Calculating Stars is a new novel by Mary Robinette Kowal and it is superb. It deserves pride of place in everyone’s collection and if it doesn’t win a Hugo there is no justice in the world. The story is an alternate history set in 1952. Thomas Dewey is President of the United States and under his Presidential rule, the USA has made its first tentative steps into space. Then a meteor strikes in the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern seaboard of America. Washington is destroyed. The President, his cabinet and most of the members of the Senate and Congress are killed,  – along with almost everybody else in that part of the continent. The after effects of the meteor strike set huge climate changes in motion and it soon becomes clear that in a few years time the planet will become uninhabitable. The only chance for the survival of the human race is to accelerate the nascent space programme. Perhaps this way some few people will be able to survive the catastrophic climate change. Perhaps humanity will be able to begin again…

The story is told by Elma York. She is a computer – and I do not use that word to mean an electronic machine such as the one I am sitting in front of to type these words. Remember, the story takes place in 1952. In those days, a computer was a person who performed calculations. Almost invariably these people were women – in the early twentieth century such repetitive drudgery was seen as being ideally suited to a woman’s temperament. In our world, computers, in this original sense of the word, were absolutely vital to the success of the Manhattan Project that devised and built the first atomic bombs. Richard Feynman tells several very complimentary stories about these computers in the autobiographical essays that were published as Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. The bomb could not have been built without them, and in 1952, no rockets can be launched without them either.

Elma has a degree in physics. During the war she was a pilot, ferrying planes from the factories where they were built to the military bases where they will fight. The female ferry pilots were known as WASPs – Women Airforce Service Pilots. Their jobs could be quite dangerous. They were flying unarmed planes into combat zones, and sometimes things got hairy. In many ways, Elma’s experience and qualifications make her ideally suited to be an astronaut. But the movers and the shakers don’t agree. Girls just aren’t supposed to fly rockets...

The bulk of the novel, of course, is the story of the expanded space effort. And given that the book is subtitled Lady Astronaut Book One, it is very clear just what role Elma is destined to play in the drama. But she doesn’t have an easy time of it. This is 1952 and Elma is a woman. She is also Jewish. Both of these things count against her, but at least she isn’t black… Among many other things, this is a novel about prejudice, and some of the scenes make for very uncomfortable and sometimes rather squirmy reading.

The second half of Elma’s story will be told in The Fated Sky (Lady Astronaut Book Two) which is due to be published in August. I am greatly looking forward to reading it. There also exists a novella, The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which concludes the story of Elma’s life, though interestingly the novella was published before the novels were even written. It won a Hugo in 2013. Somehow that seems oddly appropriate and very science fictional, in a peculiarly hard to define way.

Back in 1996 I bought a Ballantine paperback by Alan Dean Foster. It was called Mad Amos and it was a collection of ten stories about a rather odd mountain man who had supernatural adventures in the American Wild West. These days I suspect the collection would be pigeon-holed under the generic label weird west, but this was 1996 and that genre hadn’t been invented yet. I read the book with open mouthed fascination. It was one of the best things I’d ever read by Foster. (He is unfairly categorised as a hack writer who will turn his hand to anything that will pay him money. To an extent that is true, but even his most clichéd hackwork is always quite readable and there is a fair amount of pure gold buried in the dross of his enormous output. I like his books a lot).

Anyway, back to Mad Amos. The eponymous Amos Malone rides through the West on a horse called Worthless. The horse has a curious leather strap across his forehead and in one story Amos reminds himself that he really needs to remove the strap and file down the horn that it is concealing. The horn is starting to grow again and is threatening to dislodge its cover…

The stories are all like that, nicely understated with an edge of humour to them. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Sadly, my paperback copy of Mad Amos disappeared during the Great Library Cull of 2014. In retrospect I am rather sad about that because the book is long out of print and until very recently I haven’t been able to see any reasonable way of replacing it. But now Del Rey have published an ebook called Mad Amos Malone – The Complete Stories and I purchased it within minutes of its appearance on the electronic shelves of my favourite retailer. To my delight, I discovered that it contains eight extra stories over and above the original ten stories from the Ballantine paperback. Clearly Foster is very fond of Mad Amos Malone and he’s returned to the world of Mad Amos again and again over the years. Furthermore, all eighteen stories in the collection have an introduction by Foster in which he describes the genesis of the tale. I strongly urge you to go out and buy this book immediately. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

This book is the first example I have found of what might turn out to be the wave of the future. It is available only as an ebook. There is no printed version at all and, as far as I can tell, there are no plans to produce one. Self published books and books from small presses are often only published in electronic form, but it is very unusual to see this sort of thing from a major publisher. Fairly obviously, it also means that there are no printing costs whatsoever for the publisher to absorb (or, more accurately, for the publisher to factor in to the price of the book) and that probably accounts for the very cheap price of  Mad Amos Malone – The Complete Stories. I purchased it for the princely sum of $9.20,  which makes it one of the cheapest ebooks I have ever bought. I applaud the trend and I hope to see more of this kind of thing in the future. Well done Del Rey!

For some odd reason, Simon Morden’s new novel One Way has been published as by S. J. Morden. I have no idea why he’s chosen to adopt such an impenetrable pseudonym for his latest novel. Perhaps he was having an existential crisis. But whatever the reason, he’s written an extremely good book. I hope it sells well. I’d like to see his new name on the covers of more books.

One Way is an SF murder mystery and, unusually for such things, it is both excellent SF and an excellent mystery as well, so it will definitely appeal to fans of each genre. That’s a hard trick to pull off.

The basic premise is that the Company charged with building the first permanent settlement on Mars has chosen to cut costs by using criminals who are serving life sentences as their labour force. The workers don’t have to be paid, of course, and, because they are criminals, there is no need to bring them back to Earth once the settlement has been constructed. After all, they are each serving a life sentence. They may as well serve it on Mars. The planet is so far away from home and so inhospitable that it actually makes a very good prison… There is, of course, a real life precedent for all these ideas (can you say Australia?) and, probably as a consequence of that, the story situation is presented very convincingly. Moral and ethical quibbles are raised but they are (mostly) squashed, though doubts remain and eventually those doubts do become important for the development of the plot. S. J. Morden doesn’t miss a trick!

Once the criminals arrive on Mars and begin to build the settlement, someone starts killing them off one by one by one. Who is the murderer? Clearly the pool of suspects is very small. The only people on the entire planet are the criminals themselves and their supervisor. Those of us who are well versed in the tropes of murder mysteries will have no problem identifying just who dunnit – though as an aside I should note that the criminals themselves prove to be surprisingly dumb on this point; it takes them forever to figure out just what’s going on. Clearly they’ve never read any murder mysteries. Perhaps Agatha Christie’s classic novel And Then There Were None should have been included in the cargo of one of the rockets that supplies the construction material to the building site…

Although the murderer is obvious, the murderer’s motives remain obscure until almost the end of the book. And that is exactly as it should be of course. Ten out of ten for the mystery aspects of the novel.

What about the SF side? Well, that’s pretty good as well. The scenes that deal with training the criminals to be astronauts are grittily described and, superficially at least, they are very convincing. Once the criminals arrive on Mars, the trials and tribulations of working on the Red Planet are again brilliantly evoked. I swear I could smell sweat mingled with the Martian dust every time they took their suits off when they returned to their living quarters.

This is a very, very good novel. It doesn’t have an awful lot going on behind the scenes or beneath the text. Everything it has to say is said quite openly up front. But it’s a rattling good yarn that held me enthralled from beginning to end. Who could ask for anything more?

The Golden Hour is the first novel in a series about a diplomat called Judd Ryker. He’s the head of the Crisis Reaction Unit, a new organisation that has been set up within the American State Department. Its brief is to react immediately to any diplomatic crisis and to work behind the scenes in an attempt to defuse it before things get out of control. It is Ryker’s contention that the first few hours of a crisis are critical. These are the golden hours of the book’s title. Once they pass and the situation settles down, resolving the crisis can only get more and more difficult.

The particular crisis that drives this novel is a coup in Mali. It isn’t long before Ryker finds himself holding meetings in Europe, in Africa, deep in the Sahara Desert and eventually in Timbuktu (exotic destination or what?). In all these places, old friends and old enemies (it’s not always clear just who is which!) all have their fingers in the pie, and Ryker has make sure that the fingers all manage to pull out satisfyingly juicy bits to eat. Despite the high flown political rhetoric which is used to justify the coup, Ryker knows that the reality is more mundane. The only things that ever motivate people are money, sex and self-respect. He clearly understands that sometimes the reasons for political actions can be very base indeed. The problems come when he tries to separate the rhetoric from the reasons; to come to grips with what is really going on as opposed to what everybody says is going on.

And it doesn’t help at all that Ryker’s colleagues in the State Department are less than enamoured of his diplomatic theories, and they are not at all averse to putting obstacles in his way. Self-interest means that they would delight in seeing him stumble and fall. Not all of Ryker’s enemies sit on the other side of the negotiating table from him and not all of his friends sit in the seats beside him…

Todd Moss, the author of The Golden Hour, has a background in international diplomacy. He clearly knows how things work at high political levels, and this lends an air of verisimilitude to even the strangest events. This is a deeply cynical book but, being something of a cynic myself, I can’t help thinking that it explains a lot about what goes on behind the scenes of the news broadcasts that we see every day on our television sets.

As well as reading "proper" books, I’ve also been listening to a lot of audio books while I’ve been out walking my dog Jake. As a result, it is becoming more and more clear to me just how important it is to have a good narrator telling the story. I had to stop listening to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (one of my all time favourite printed novels – I’ve read it at least half a dozen times) because the narrator gabbled the words far too fast in a dull monotone, as if he couldn’t wait to get the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible. So a lively, colourful story turned grey and flat and tedious. Therefore I turned it off and started listening to some of Elizabeth Peter’s Amelia Peabody novels instead. These too are old favourites and I love them to bits.

If you aren’t familiar with the Amelia Peabody books, let me just say that they concern the adventures of a lady archaeologist/amateur detective in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Elizabeth Peters herself was an American author, but  Amelia, the heroine of these books, is English through and through – and let me say in passing that Elizabeth Peters had a perfect, and very thorough, understanding of the nuances of English idiom and lifestyle. She did a superbly convincing job of bringing Amelia Peabody to life.

Anyway, a couple of the Amelia Peabody audio books that I tried to listen to had an American narrator and I found I simply couldn’t get involved in the story because the narration was just so completely and utterly wrong! The narrator tried very hard to put on an English accent and, to be fair, by and large, she did a pretty good job. However the scenes where Amelia and her husband are having conversations with their son simply didn’t work for me. As was the  custom of the time, the child refers to his parents as "mama" and "papa". The narrator always pronounced those words in the American way as "momma" and "poppa". I’d have been perfectly happy to accept that pronunciation if the characters had been an American family, but to hear those words on the lips of an English child grated like fingernails on a blackboard. I simply couldn’t continue with the stories, and I had to go and listen to something else instead.

It’s a small point and, for a lot of people it would probably be an unimportant one. But I find that it really matters to me. I don’t know about you, but when I read a printed book I always hear the voices of the characters very clearly in my head. So when I listen to an audio book (particularly if it is a book with which I am already quite familiar), I think it is important that the narrator’s voice doesn’t clash too much with the voices that live inside my skull. I suppose I’m saying that when you hear voices, it’s probably best if the voices don’t argue among themselves.

Excuse me. Jake tells me that there’s a man in a white coat at the door...

Ian Whates (Editor) Fables From the Fountain Newcon Press
Ian Whates (Editor) 2001 – An Odyssey In Words Newcon Press
Mary Robinette Kowal The Calculating Stars Tor
Alan Dean Foster Mad Amos Malone – The Complete Stories Del Rey
S. J. Morden One Way Orbit
Todd Moss The Golden Hour Putnam
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