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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (exterius maximus)

Gilbert Goes Outside

From the minute he was born, Gilbert the ginger cat has always been an inside person. When he was young, he was quite a traveller – his foster mum took him to the office every morning so that everybody could coo over him all day instead of doing any work, and then she took him home again with her every evening. So he did get to see the outside world quite a lot. But he always saw it from the safety of his travelling cage on the back seat of his foster mum’s car. He never had an opportunity to run around in it and break things. That remained his one, great, unfulfilled ambition.

After Gilbert came to live with us,  he continued to be an inside cat for several months because Robin and I felt that he was far too small and vulnerable to deal with the great outdoors. Gilbert, however, did not agree with us…

One day Jake the Dog went up to the door and said, "Can somebody open this please? I want to go outside and inhume my bone." Ever eager to obey Jake’s requests, I opened the door for him.

"Can I go too?" asked Gilbert, fur quivering with ginger eagerness.

"Certainly not," said Jake forcefully. He trotted off through the door into the garden. I closed the door behind him.

"Sorry, Gilbert," I said. "You aren’t quite ready yet."

"That’s not fair," said Gilbert. "Why does Jake have all the fun?"

"Because he’s a dog," I said.

Gilbert wasn’t convinced by my logic. "I can be a dog too," he said. "Jake’s been giving me lessons."

I looked at Robin and Robin looked at me. We both looked at Gilbert. "Woof," he mumbled, somewhat unconvincingly. Then he lifted his back leg and threatened to pee on the couch. "See?" he said. "Just like a real dog."

"OK. OK," said Robin, "You’ve persuaded me." She opened the door.

Gilbert trotted gingerly outside. The first thing he did when he got there was dash under the couch that sits on our deck. From there he surveyed the big blue room that stretched out infinitely large in front of him. It wasn’t long before he noticed leaves that were bouncing in the breeze and insects that were buzzing in spirals around the flowers. Cor! Fascinating! It was all too much to resist and the urge to catch and kill something overwhelmed him. He pranced out on to the lawn where he raised himself up on his hindquarters like a meercat and tried to grab something with his front paws. He dropped back onto all four feet then he flopped down onto his tummy and examined his front paws carefully in case anything interesting had been trapped in them. "Damn!" he muttered when close scrutiny revealed them to be empty.

He looked around for something else to stalk and it wasn’t long before he was rewarded with the sight of a rather sluggish bee that was hovering around a lavender plant. It seemed to have taken on a full cargo, so much so in fact that it was barely airworthy and its wings were working overtime simply to keep it in the same place. "Hah!" said Gilbert softly. "A sitting target." He gave a convulsive leap into the air and the bee vanished. The next thing I saw was Gilbert chewing contentedly. "Yummy!" he said and he licked his lips.

"You’re lucky you didn’t get stung," I said. "Probably the bee was too tired to react in time."

"Stung?" asked Gilbert, puzzled. "What’s that?"

"You’ll find out eventually," I said. "Sooner or later you’ll come across a bee that will teach you a lesson you’ll never forget."

"Oh goody!" said Gilbert. "I like learning new things. Are bees good teachers?"

"Very good," I said.

Gilbert turned his attention to a pair of butterflies that were flying in circles around each other. His head turned round and round as he followed their gyrations and just when I was starting to worry that he might unscrew his head and cause it to fall to the ground where it would land in a pile of yummy dog poo, he made a mighty leap and missed the butterflies completely. They flew away, still making circles around each other and laughing hysterically at Gilbert’s clumsy efforts to catch them. "Call that flying?" yelled one of them. "That’s not flying. This is flying." The butterfly looped a loop into the fourth dimension and then both butterflies vanished with a soft popping sound, leaving Gilbert frustrated and alone.

An aeroplane buzzed by overhead. Gilbert stared at it in wonder and made a little yammering sound in the back of his throat. Then, with an almighty leap, he caught it, pulled it out of the sky and ate it all up, spitting out the indigestible bits like pilots and suitcases.

Well, that was clearly the plan. Maybe next time it will work. I resolved to send a letter to Air New Zealand to warn them of the danger.

* * * *

One of the frustrations of being an SF fan is having to wait for promised books that sometimes never arrive. Game of Thrones fans are currently undergoing this torture with George R. R. Martin, but it’s not a new phenomenon. I’ve been waiting fifty years for Alexei Panshin to write The Universal Pantograph, and let’s not talk about Harlan Ellison’s The Last Dangerous Visions. David Gerrold left us on a cliff hanger in 1993 when he promised, but never delivered, a fifth novel about the war against the Chtorr. And twenty years ago, John Varley promised us Irontown Blues, a third (or possibly fourth, depending how you count them) novel in his Eight Worlds series…

Somewhat to my surprise, Irontown Blues actually slithered into print this month. I fell on it eagerly and devoured it in no time at all because it’s a rather short book. I can’t say that it was worth waiting twenty years for. Christopher Bach, the protagonist suffers from PTSD. He spends his life pretending to be a traditional private detective in the Sam Spade mould. He is hired by a mysterious lady who has been infected with para-leprosy following an unfortunate sexual encounter. It’s a fascinating and potentially fruitful opening, but it goes nowhere. Partly this is because Christopher couldn’t detect his way out of a wet paper bag (he’s really very passive – he just waits for things to happen rather than trying to find out what’s actually going on) and partly it’s because when we do eventually find out what lies behind that opening scene it turns out to be rather dull, anti-climactic and of no real significance to the plot. Assuming that there is a plot, of course. I’m not completely convinced that  there is, though I will admit that probably depends on just how you care to define the concept of "plot".

Christopher’s genetically enhanced dog Sherlock does much better at figuring out what’s going on than Christopher does. The chapters involving Sherlock are an unalloyed delight. I’d really have liked a lot more of him and a lot less of moaning moron Christopher.

Several minor plot threads from earlier books are tied up neatly in a bow at the end of the story and Varley has a lot of fun playing mind games with his readers – Christopher Bach’s mother is called Anna-Louise Bach, but she clearly isn’t the Anna-Louise Bach from another of Varley’s story cycles. Bugger!

Meanwhile I remain holding my breath for The Universal Last Dangerous Pantograph Against the Chtorr. Maybe I’ll get lucky and it will arrive in time for Christmas, though I’m not certain in which year that Christmas will fall…

Mary Robinette Kowal has just published the sequel to her Lady Astronaut novel The Calculating Stars. It’s called  The Fated Sky and while it definitely is a sequel, it can easily be read as a stand alone story. Several years have passed since the events of the previous book. There is now a flourishing moon base and Elma York’s role has been reduced to what is almost the space equivalent of a bus driver as she ferries people backwards and forwards between the Earth and the Moon. And she’s bored. Very, very bored. However preparations are well advanced for sending a ship off to explore Mars. The lady astronaut desperately wants to be part of that effort. But of course it’s not that simple. It never is.

As with the first book, the underlying theme deals with prejudice and privilege and how people react to those things. In the first book Elma had to cope with prejudice against her position because she was a woman and everyone knows women aren’t suitable for high tension and potentially dangerous high tech roles. By the time of The Fated Sky, that battle has largely been won. But now Elma herself has to deal with the fact that she herself is regarded as the prejudiced one, though this time the prejudice is based on race rather than on gender. She comes late to the crew of the ship that is going to Mars and someone has to be demoted to make room for her. That sits uneasily with a lot of people. Rank hath its privileges.

And wrapped around this theme is the story of the first people setting out to reach the red planet. That, of course, is a story as old as science fiction itself and it never gets stale, particularly when it is told as brilliantly as this story is told.

As with the previous book, I am firmly convinced that this novel deserves to win every prize going. The Fated Sky is the kind of book that keeps you up all night. You simply can’t go to bed even though you know you will suffer for it in the morning. Trust me, the suffering will all be worth while.

It has recently been announced that Tor have commissioned Mary Robinette Kowal to write more Lady Astronaut books. I am very much looking forward to reading them.

My first encounter with the books of Seanan McGuire was her Incryptid series which I devoured avidly and thoroughly enjoyed. I was vaguely aware that she had another major urban fantasy series about somebody called October Daye. I found the name intriguing, but not intriguing enough to make me want to pick up any of the October Daye books and start reading. After all, they weren’t Incryptid novels. I was sure I’d be disappointed. But every dog has its day and so does every book, and I’ve just read the first two October Daye novels, Rosemary and Rue and A Local Habitation.

I must confess that the prologue to Rosemary and Rue alienated me immediately. It was so clichéd that I was sorely tempted to put the book down and go and read something else instead. If I had come across it in any other book by any other author that’s almost certainly what I would have done. But this was a Seanan McGuire book and I know her writing well enough by now to be certain that I can trust her. She’s far too clever to fall into the extruded fantasy product trap. So perhaps there were wheels within wheels and I simply didn’t know enough to be able to see them yet. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and I persevered. I’m very glad I did. The story really takes off in Chapter One, after the prologue has finished ploughing its weary way across the pages, and once it started, it carried me happily along with it. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I am eager for more. Fortunately Seanan McGuire is a very prolific author and there are a lot more October Daye books just waiting to be picked up. I foresee much happy reading in my future…

October Daye (Toby for short) is a changeling, half human and half fae. She tends to find the world more than a little confusing because she’s spent the last fourteen years as a fish (as one does), and the world has moved on while she was busy swimming. She is not a full blood fae and therefore her magic is weak. She barely has enough power to keep her human disguise in place (like most fae, she has pointy ears and translucent skin). She has elected to live her life in the human world but she cannot afford to let her real appearance show. Life would be far too difficult for her if the humans suspected who she really was.

The fae do not all live in isolation. Many of them have dealings with the human world. The Countess Evening Winterrose is one of October’s fae acquaintances who runs a successful human business. It’s hard to use the word friend to describe the relationship between Toby and the Countess – the fae do not make friendships easily and social intercourse is based more on the discharging of mutual social and political debts than it is upon what we would call the attraction of friendship. But the acquaintanceship between Toby and Evening Winterrose is certainly a close one, so when the Countess is murdered by person or persons unknown for reasons that are mysterious, Toby would have felt compelled to investigate the crime no matter what, because that’s the kind of person she is. However the last thing that Evening did before she died was to lay a compulsion on Toby. So now she really has no choice in the matter. She has to get to the bottom of whatever lies behind the Countess’ murder, and the compulsion will force her onwards whether she wants it to or not. When the going gets tough, the taste of roses (winter roses, of course) will force her to carry on. So, damned if she does and double damned if she doesn’t, October Daye has perils to face. And remember, her magic is very, very weak.

The plot is a fairly routine whodunnit with added magical trickery to give it spice and flavour. The strength of the novel, and the thing that has made me so eager to read more about October Daye, is the well realised fae society that Seanan McGuire sets her story in and the somewhat ambivalent relationship that Toby has with it.. The world and its fae inhabitants have their familiar aspects, of course. The fae are repelled by iron (and what made the death of Evening Winterrose so awful was that she was killed with an iron bullet and an iron knife). Their social hierarchies are rather feudal and very Shakespearian. Oberon is still firmly in charge of all the fae lords and ladies even though he and his queens have been missing for a very long time.  Seanan McGuire fills in this sketchy outline with completely convincing detail and she explores the implications in new and fascinating ways.

A Local Habitation builds on this scheme and fleshes out more details of the faerie world and Toby’s relationship with it. The story itself is essentially a re-write of Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, with computers and magic to muddy the waters. It’s quite obvious who the killer is very early on in the story but the motives remain very obscure until quite near the end, which is exactly the way it should be of course. I can’t go into any more detail of the plot without massive spoilers. Suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully told tale full of cats and Night Haunts and a faerie creature who is a walking, talking beauty parlour. Who could want for anything more?

One of the nice things about Seanan McGuire’s characters is that they grow and change. Their experiences in the various stories mould and shape them. They learn life lessons and they apply those lessons. People from the first novel are closely involved in the events of the second, but their relationships with Toby are quite different as a result of what they experienced together in the first book. And I suspect that when I come to read the third novel in the series, more of the same will apply. I’m looking forward to that, and I’m very glad that Seanan McGuire is such a prolific author.

John Birmingham has started a new series with an episodic novel called A Girl In Time. It concerns the adventures of one Cady McCall, a successful game designer who is about to be paid several million dollars in royalties by a certain fruity computer company, based on her sales from their online store. However on her way home one evening, she runs into a couple of muggers. Fortunately she is rescued in the nick of time by a passing stranger. Unfortunately the stranger is a time traveller who is trapped in the time stream and who is desperately trying to get back to 1876 so that he can rejoin his family and start living his life again. By rescuing Cady, he has caught her in the same trap that holds him captive. So now Cady is also stuck in time, though she, of course, wants to get back to the early twenty-first century rather than to 1876…

There are lots of nice touches in the story – I’ve always been a sucker for time travel and so I settled down to enjoy it with a sense of anticipation. Unfortunately Cady turned out to be such a total dickhead of a character that I really couldn’t read very much without doing a lot of squirming. I forced myself to read to the end in case she got any more likeable (she didn’t) but I really can’t imagine myself reading any more of this series.

There are three major scenarios in the book – the characters have adventures in Victorian London, in an America which is several years into the Trump presidency (some rather obvious and heavy-handed political satire appears in this episode) and in ancient Rome. Cady starts to learn a little more about the mysterious artefact that they use to jump randomly through the years and I presume that in later books she will gradually learn to control it rather better than she does in this book.

But Cady is rude, selfish, stupid, thoughtless and a little bit of a bully. She learns almost nothing from her experiences and she insists that the world should work in the way that she expects it to rather in the way that it actually does. It’s really not surprising that in her home timeline she was a social recluse and pariah. Nobody could possibly put up with such a painful, immature brat in real life and I didn’t see why I should have to put up with her on the pages of the story. I suppose it says something for John Birmingham’s skill as a writer that he can construct such a believably offensive character, but she makes my blood boil so much that I really don’t want to meet her again. So, despite the promise of this series, I will not be going back to it.

A Voice in the Night is a collection of short stories by Jack McDevitt which has been published in a limited edition of 1000 copies by Subterranean Press. My copy is the nicely symmetrical number 202.

The stories themselves cover quite a wide range. There are episodes from the early lives of Alex Benedict and Priscilla Hutchins, the protagonists of McDevitt’s two major series. But, much more interestingly from my point of view at least, there are several stories that highlight McDevitt’s fascination with traditional mysteries. McDevitt has long been a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries and the collection contains several stories that add science fictional flourishes to these kinds of traditional tales. Two highlights are a story about who really discovered the theory of relativity and who really wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. And they aren’t the people who did those things in our world… Is your brain spinning yet?

The stories are mainly gimmicky yarns with very little depth to them. I confess that I missed McDevitt’s more usual elegiac tone of voice and the highly developed sense of wonder that he brings to his novels. I do much prefer those deeper, more thoughtful tales. But just because the stories are shallow doesn’t mean that they are entirely unworthy. One and all they are entertaining and there’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment for its own sake. However, generally speaking, these are stories that you can only read once. When you have discovered what the punchline is, there isn’t anything else left the second time around.

Past-Masters is a collection of essays in which Bud Webster talks about the lives and works of the authors that I grew up reading, most of whom are now, alas, no longer with us. Some of the biographical details that Webster mentions were new to me – for example, he has a long discussion about Tom Reamy, a writer I admire hugely but about whom I knew next to nothing until I read Webster’s article. Consequently I found the essays mildly interesting from that point of view. But his analysis of the stories that these people are best known for is generally rather shallow, which is a little disappointing. However each essay is followed by a huge and enormously detailed bibliography of the writer under discussion. And that alone makes these pieces valuable.

Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos is a series of essays about the winners and the nominees for the Hugo awards from their inception in 1953 up to the arbitrary cut off date of 2000. The year 2000 is a nicely symbolic place to close the discussion off, of course (though 2001 might perhaps have been a better choice) – but actually she has a much more personal reason for choosing to stop where she did. It wasn’t very long after that year that Walton herself started being nominated for Hugo awards, and that could have made things rather awkwardly self-referential…

The book is much more than a series of dry and dull lists (though it has its fair share of those – you can skip them without any problems if you are so inclined). Not only does she analyse the winners and the nominees in quite a lot of detail, she also looks around the other stories that were eligible for nomination during the year under discussion but which, for one reason or another, did not make the final cut. She compares these others to the stories that were actually nominated and it becomes quite clear that in some cases she feels strongly that the stories that didn’t get nominated were actually much more worthy of the honour than the ones that did! Though having said that, when she looks back and counts up the winners and the losers, she does admit that, by and large, the Hugo awards got things right slightly more often than they got things wrong. Which is nice to know!

Naturally Jo Walton has very firm opinions about the value of the stories she is discussing and, of course, she isn’t afraid to state those opinions. But her saving grace is that she always has very good reasons to back up her statements and so the discussion is always interesting though, in some cases, possibly controversial. Mostly I found myself agreeing with her conclusions, though I’m not sure that everyone would necessarily feel the same way.

Despite the title, because of the way she has chosen to approach the subject, her book is actually far more than just a discussion of the Hugo awards themselves. It actually turns into a year by year survey and analysis of every important science fiction story that was published over a period of very nearly half a century. That’s an amazing tour de force in its own right. And the fact that she has done it so interestingly and so cleverly is even more impressive. This is a superb book and if it doesn’t win a Hugo award itself I will be seriously annoyed. So there!

John Varley Irontown Blues Ace
Mary Robinette Kowal The Fated Sky Tor
Seanan McGuire Rosemary and Rue DAW
Seanan McGuire A Local Habitation DAW
John Birmingham A Girl in Time GWC
Jack McDevitt A Voice in the Night Subterranean Press
Bud Webster Past-Masters Reanimus Press
Jo Walton An Informal History of the Hugos Tor

In Memoriam - Sue Martin-Smith 1960-2018

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