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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (glacio titanicus)

The Coolest Thing Ever!

For most of the New Year we’ve been sweltering. The temperature and the humidity have both been astronomically high. Jake the Dog has been spending all day panting and drooling while Gilbert the Cat has been lying in the sun and smiling a catty smile all over his ginger face because, like all felines, he loves the warmth.

After far too many days and nights of this, I walked into the lounge to talk to Robin about something or other but, rather to my surprise, she wasn’t there any more. She’d melted into a puddle of grease that shimmered on the carpet between her shoes. "This has got beyond a joke," said the puddle of grease, sounding very annoyed. "Bugger the ozone layer, bugger the expense, we’re getting air conditioning."

"Yes dear," I said. As one does.

Jake came in and eyed the puddle of grease thoughtfully. "That looks tasty," he said. He came closer and sniffed it, then he poked out a tentative tongue.

"Don’t you even think about licking me up," said the puddle of grease. "I’ll give you a terrible tummy ache." Jake took the warning to heart and he flopped down on to the carpet, heaved a deep sigh, and went to sleep, there to dream greasy dreams.

I rang my friendly electrician. "Do you supply and/or fit air conditioning units?" I asked.

"Yes indeed," said the lovely Rochelle. "In fact we do both! I’ll send someone round to give you a quote."

No sooner had I hung up the phone than the doorbell rang. Once I’d stopped Jake barking, I went to answer the door. There stood a man with a clipboard. "Hello," he said, "I’ve come to work out a quote for air conditioning."

I took him into the lounge. "Mind you don’t slip on the puddle of grease," I said.

He looked around the room and peered out of a couple of windows. "Perfect," he said in deeply satisfied tones. "I suggest we fix the unit to the wall over there, just above the bookcase. The external unit will sit quite nicely in the flower bed on the other side of the wall. I’m afraid we’ll have to dig up some weeds to make it fit properly. Will that be OK?"

"That’s fine," said the puddle of grease. "Dig up anything you like. Just give me air conditioning."

"Which side of the gate will the external unit be on?" I asked, peering out of the same window the man had peered through. "Oh," I said, answering my own question, "it will be on this side of the gate. That’s good. It means Jake won’t be able to get anywhere near it. We don’t want him peeing on it, do we? What happens when a dog pees on the external unit of an air conditioner?"

"Nothing good," said the man in sepulchral tones. He took a few photographs of the room to give to his workmen and then left, promising that he’d email us a quote as soon as he got back to the office.

"Excellent," said the puddle of grease, sounding very satisfied. "I’m glad the wheels are finally in motion. I’m looking forward to solidifying again."

A quote arrived in my inbox. The email was terribly modern – it had two links buried within it. One link allowed me to accept the quote and another forced me to reject the quote. Despite the eye-wateringly large amount of money printed on the bottom line, I clicked on the link to accept the quote. No sooner had I done so than the doorbell rang and Jake went berserk again. I held on to his collar and opened the door.

"Hello," said a young man, eyeing Jake nervously, "You’ve accepted our quote, so I’ve come to install your air conditioner."

"Come in," I said.

"Don’t let him in," yelled Jake. "He’s an enemy. I want to kill him. And then I want to watch him fit the air conditioner. It’ll be fascinating. I’ve always wanted to watch an air conditioner being installed. It’s my lifetime’s ambition. It’s number one on my bucket list. What’s an air conditioner?"

"Err… I’m not very good with dogs," said the young man diffidently. "Don’t get me wrong. I love dogs. But I was chewed up and swallowed by a German Shepherd last week, and so I’ve been a bit nervous of dogs ever since."

"I’ll lock him in the bedroom," I said.

"No," protested Jake. "Not the bedroom. Anything but the bedroom!"

I took him off to the bedroom. "Thanks," said the young man. "My mate will be turning up to give me a hand in half an hour or so. That’s good – it means we’ll be finished in half the time." Frustrated howls from the bedroom bounced off the walls. "I’ll just go and unload the van," said the young man, very brave now that Jake wasn’t there to keep him under control.

He soon had all the bits and pieces of the air conditioner spread out all over the place. He was scratching his head in a puzzled manner when his mate turned up to help and it wasn’t very long before they had the internal unit attached to the wall and the external unit sitting happily in what used to be a carefully cultivated weed bed, Robin’s pride and joy. A cable went from the unit to the main fuse box, so presumably it was powering up nicely. They fed a cable from the internal unit through the wall to the external unit and then they switched everything on to see if it worked.

"That’s a good sign," said one of the fitters. His head was cocked to one side and he appeared to be listening carefully. "There aren’t any funny noises coming out of it, and I can feel a blast of cold air on my face, so my initial assumption is that the thing is doing just what it says on the box."

I looked at the box. It said ‘Panasonic’ on every side.

"Yes," I agreed. "That unit Panasonics really well. The performance is the very best display of Panasonicing that I’ve ever seen, and believe me, I’ve seen lots!"

The technician gave me a funny look. "Let’s see if the heat pump pumps any heat." He pressed a button on the remote control and blasts of superheated air roared out of the unit. The temperature of the room rose noticeably and the puddle of grease began to bubble and boil. Wisps of steam rose from it and drifted towards the ceiling.

"Cool me down," begged the puddle of grease. "Right now! Pretty please..."

The fitter pressed another button on the remote control. The blasts of hot air faded away and soon a delicious chill permeated the room again. It got colder and colder and we all got more and more comfortable. Icicles dangled from my nostrils as I revelled in the waves of coolth. "This is just wonderful," said the puddle of grease. We watched it gradually solidify and before very long it was distinctly Robin shaped again.

"I feel better already," said Robin. She broke off one of my nasal icicles and began to pick her teeth with it.

"Robin!" came despairing screams from the bedroom. "Tell him I need to watch!"

Robin ignored Jake’s agonised pleading and smiled winsomely at the technician. "You’re really cool stuff, you know," she said feelingly, and he blushed.

After the electricians had left, we freed Jake from the bedroom. He came into the lounge and looked at the air conditioning unit. "I preferred it when you were a puddle of grease," he said to Robin, and then he shivered.

* * * *

Gregory Benford’s new novel is called Re-Write and he describes it as a thematic sequel to Timescape, his most famous book. Both novels dramatise Benford’s musings about the nature of time, a subject he has thought about quite deeply in his real life profession as a physicist. You don’t have to have read Timescape to understand Re-Write, though it does help if you have at least a cursory understanding of what it was about. Amusingly (and very self-referentially) Timescape itself appears in this novel, though the author is named as Jim Benford who is actually Gregory’s twin brother in real life. This is just one of many hints that the action of Re-Write takes place in a universe that is not quite ours…

Re-Write  is Benford’s attempt to come to grips with and dramatise the "many-worlds" interpretation of various quantum physical phenomena. There are occasions when a quantum event can take place in many possible ways, however only one of those ways will ever be observed to happen. How does the quantum event "choose" the path that it takes? What makes that "choice" "better" than any other one? Arguments about how this works have been going on in one form or another since (probably) at least the 1930’s but it didn’t get put on to a formal theoretical basis until 1957 when a physicist called Hugh Everett came to grips with it in his doctoral thesis.

The thought-experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat is usually used to try and illustrate the problem – a cat, a flask of poison and a radioactive substance are sealed in a box. If a quantum event takes place (i.e. if a radioactive atom decays) the flask of poison shatters and the cat will die. There is no way to predict when, or even if, the radioactive decay will actually take place (it’s a purely random event) and therefore there is no way of knowing for certain whether the cat is dead or alive at any given time. Inside the box we have what physicists refer to as a superposition of states – from an isolated physicist’s point of view the cat is in all possible states (the superposition) because there simply isn’t enough information to separate the states out. It is both alive and dead, because both are possible states for the cat to be in. However if an observer opens the box and takes a look, the "wave function collapses" (that’s the jargon) and only one state is observed. The cat is alive. Or maybe it is dead. But either way, we now know what state it is in. So it appears that the action of observing the state is what causes the state to exist. Until the observation takes place, the state doesn’t exist – only the superposition of all possible states exists (although again, it isn’t clear if "exists" is the right word to use here). There’s a disturbing personalisation about this approach. Physical phenomena are supposed to be invariant – having them depend on the actions of an arbitrary outside observer seems somehow wrong. It’s almost as if the observer is the cause of the phenomenon!

Furthermore while there may be a philosophical justification for the action of observing the phenomenon being used to define the state of that phenomenon, there is no real physical or mathematical (much the same thing) justification for it. So Everett’s assumption takes a different approach. The superposition of states is actually considered to be the definition of a set of universes. Every one of the possible states exists because a universe is created to contain it. When the observer opens the box, what the observer sees simply depends on which universe the observer happens to be in at the time. All possible states will be observed by observers in all possible universes. The wave function never collapses and consequently the quantum event never has to make a "choice" from the superposition. Therefore there is no problem with trying to define (or restrict) the effect of the arbitrary observer – the observer is not the cause of the event. Odd though this sounds, there are very real physical and mathematical justifications for it.

I first started bumping my head against this particular brick wall in the 1960s when I studied quantum physics at university as part of my chemistry degree. Whenever the physics, the mathematics and the philosophy got too hairy for me (which was pretty much all of the time) I consoled myself with a thought attributed to (I think) Richard Feynman – anyone who says they understand quantum physics does not understand quantum physics…

Unfortunately the corollary of this saying implies that if you do not understand quantum physics then clearly you must understand it perfectly. This contradiction makes me uncomfortable on very many levels because my understanding of quantum physics is really quite superficial. In other words, if Feynman’s corollary is true, my understanding must be profound. There’s something worryingly Zen about both these thoughts.

Anyway, Benford’s thesis is that if the many worlds interpretation is correct then the universes must have a real existence. Therefore it should be possible to explore them…

In the year 2002, Charlie is a washed up forty-something year old history professor. His wife is divorcing him, his career is stagnant, he’s a mess. He almost welcomes the car accident that kills him. When he wakes up from his death he finds that he is sixteen years old again, but he still has all the memories of the history professor who died. He lives his life over, but he lives it differently this time, taking advantage of his memories to change things, hopefully for the better. After all, it’s a whole new universe out there, and it’s just next door (to paraphrase e e cummings)!

This chain of events (death, rebirth at age sixteen, a head full of memories and living a changed life) takes place several times during the course of the novel and the story explores each of these lives and the effect they have on the different Charlies who live them. Clearly Benford is using the many worlds interpretation of events to dramatise the superposition of states through the medium of Charlie. And as each life is explored the reader quickly comes to realise that each of these lives takes place in a different universe (as the many worlds interpretation requires) because significant events are different in each universe (the novel Timescape was written by Jim Benford rather than by Gregory Benford to take one example that I’ve already mentioned).

So much for physics and philosophy. Benford does a really great job of (relatively painlessly) explaining some horribly complex ideas – so full marks to him. I think he must be a really great teacher – I hope his students appreciate him. But what about the actual story itself? Here I think Benford is much less successful. Firstly, of course, the mechanism that Benford has chosen to illustrate his thesis is far too close for comfort to the plot of Claire North’s superb novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Benford’s novel suffers by comparison. Claire North’s book beats Re-Write hands down in terms of drama, excitement and sheer story value. And secondly, Benford gets far too self-referential and self-indulgent as he explores his universes. It soon becomes clear, for example, that Charlie is not the only person who has been let loose among the many worlds. Charlie meets several other travellers (for want of a better word) who all have important roles to play in his own story – Casanova, Albert Einstein, Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein to name but a few. At these moments Re-Write starts to read much more like fan fiction than like a serious novel!

Also, I suspect that Benford is being far too subtle in the ways he chooses to indicate just how each world is different from the one that has gone before (and, as far as I can tell, none of them are ours). He assumes that his readers will pick up on this important plot point from the small historical details that he tosses quite casually in to the melting pot; details that, of course, differ from universe to universe – for example, in one universe Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated by someone whose name is not Sirhan Sirhan. I’d be willing to bet that this casual little hint would go right over the heads of most young non-American readers to whom Kennedy’s assassination is ancient history from a foreign country. Some of them will never even have heard of Robert F. Kennedy, let alone be able to tell you the name of the person who killed him. Maybe some Americans would miss this point as well – though because I really don’t know how much modern American history is taught in American schools I’m not completely sure about this last point.

Even I had a little bit of trouble with this detail. I actually lived through Kennedy’s assassination and I vividly remember the terrible event and the profound effect it had on pretty much everything that was going on at the time. But I had completely forgotten the name of Kennedy’s assassin. When the name of the assassin in Charlie’s universe is mentioned I did think to myself, I’m sure that’s not right; I’m sure that’s not who assassinated Kennedy (so to that extent Benford’s little trick did work for me). But I was dammed if I could remember who the assassin actually was! I had to go and look it up… The devil is in the details and on occasion the details that Benford chooses are far too devilishly obscure. Sometimes Benford is too subtle for his own good. Mind you, kudos to you if you do spot all the references he uses – I’m absolutely sure that I missed quite a few of them.

There’s another really annoying plot thread in Re-Write that Benford does nothing of any significance with. Some of the explorers of the many worlds have the ability to manifest themselves in bodies that are not their own when they re-live a life in another universe. Charlie meets several people who do this. He himself only ever returns to his own body, and there is no indication whatsoever as to why these other travellers bother to change bodies or how they do it. Since the plot makes no practical use of the ability to change bodies, I really don’t understand why Benford even mentions it in the first place. It should have been a casualty of the first editing pass…

So, in summary, Benford’s novel is a profound discussion and dramatisation of some very hairy ideas plucked from the frontiers of science. However the story itself is not really strong enough to bear the weight of them. The surface drama lacks originality and the name-dropping self-indulgence is just embarrassing. The novel falls far short of its goals. Benford had big ideas but, in terms of constructing a novel from them, he’s bitten off more than he can chew this time.

Inspired by Robert Silverberg’s collection of time travel stories that I reviewed last month, I decided to go and re-read Up The Line, my very favourite Silverberg time travel novel. It was first published in 1969, but it hasn’t dated at all. It’s just as relevant, just as clever, just as rude and (unusually for Silverberg) just as funny as ever it was. It’s also, as you might expect from the Robert Silverberg of that era, rather deep and thoughtful. Silverberg explores the paradoxes inherent in the notion of time travel in an intellectually rigorous way (albeit with a bit of hand-waving when things get too sticky) that I don’t recall seeing in any other time-travel story.

Judson Daniel Elliott III is a Time Courier. He takes groups of travellers back to observe various interesting moment in history and tries very hard (but with little success) to avoid causing paradoxes in the time stream, paradoxes that will, sooner or later, come to the attention of the Time Patrol. Should that ever happen, the operatives of the Time Patrol will neutralise the paradox so as to bring history back on track. Such neutralisations tend to reflect badly on the Time Couriers who caused them – it may be that the courier in question will turn out never to have existed at all…

One of the major problems of time-travel tourism is that tourists from all over the time stream will be congregating at important events such as the crucifixion of Christ. Consequently the audience for such events may well consist of millions of people, none of whom (save perhaps for a few dozen) will be native to the time when the event takes place! Furthermore, any individual courier will certainly visit the event over and over and over again with a different tour group each time. So one of the strict rules of being a time courier is that you must take care not to look too closely at the crowds, because if you do, you might make eye contact with one of your past or future selves leading yet another tour party, and clearly that would never do!

Judson Daniel Elliott III has a fascination with the history of Byzantium, and Silverberg stuffs the novel with lots of frighteningly erudite Byzantine lore. That turns out to be nowhere near as dull as you might suppose it to be – Silverberg constantly interrupts the narrative with lots of jokes, lots of parties and lots and lots and lots of very inventive sex (one plot thread concerns the exploits of a courier whose ambition is to have sex with every one of his female ancestors – being careful not to impregnate any of them, of course. After all, if it turned out that he was descended from himself via a child that he’d fathered on one of them, the Time Patrol would have several very severe words to say to him...). All of this narrative sugar makes the history medicine go down in a most delightful way!

I really love this book – it’s clever, inventive, laugh out loud funny, extremely vulgar and (an added bonus as far as I am concerned) it is absolutely guaranteed to offend the sensibilities of those modern day puritans whose detestation and intolerance for anything that isn’t perfectly politically correct verges on the obsessive. Back in 1969 people were a lot more forgiving of other people’s foibles than they are today. Up The Line is very much a product of its time. If it were to be written today, I seriously doubt that it would ever get published, because it pushes just about every trigger warning button that you can possibly imagine, and probably quite a few that you cannot imagine at all. (A delightful one star review on Goodreads rates it as "Garbage! … way too much unnecessarily graphic sex."). So just to make things completely clear – this book is guaranteed to nauseate every snowflake who reads it. And what could possibly be a better recommendation than that?

Penny Freedman is a new writer to me, though it seems that she has at least half a dozen novels under her belt. This is a Dreadful Sentence is the first volume in a series that features Gina Gray, a forty-something English teacher who, as the novel opens, is running a course of English as a Second Language at a university somewhere in the middle of England. Once you realise this, the dreadful pun in the title becomes blazingly obvious – it made me smile and groan simultaneously. (As an added bonus, the title is also a quote from Shakespeare – All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 3 scene 2).

One of Gina’s students is murdered quite early in the story, and Gina soon finds herself caught up in the investigation as a sort of Miss Marple figure on the outside of the official police investigation. Initially Detective Inspector David Scott, the leader of the police investigation, finds her a little bit of a nuisance. However he’s also more than a little afraid of her – Gina was his English teacher when he was a schoolboy and he finds it rather hard to get over that fact…

The only talents that Gina can bring to the investigation are stubbornness, bravado and a detailed knowledge of English grammar. Strangely all these virtues (particularly her grammatical expertise) turn out to be vital for solving the crime.

In many ways this is a traditional English whodunnit cast squarely in the Agatha Christie mould. However Penny Freedman breathes new life into the cliché by bringing her own idiosyncratic erudition into the working out of the plot. (Penny is herself something of a grammarian and Gina Gray is very much an autobiographical character). As a consequence, the novel is an unalloyed delight from start to finish. Firstly we have a beautifully ingenious murder mechanism – the victim is crushed to death between rolling bookshelves in the stacks of the university library, a murder method I don’t ever recall having seen before. But that’s only the beginning. Gina also faces very real difficulties with the administrative bureaucracy of the university who are rather concerned that, because she had the temerity to allow one of her students to get murdered, the department might now be facing financial ruin as overseas organisations start to withdraw their students from the course. On the domestic front, Gina has to deal with the real life day to day problems of a divorcee trying to raise two teenage children, one of whom has just presented her with a baby granddaughter to look after. And it doesn’t help that, as the investigation proceeds, Gina really starts to fancy Detective Inspector Scott something rotten. It scarcely leaves any time at all for Gina to do any very serious investigation of the murder. Nevertheless, she perseveres, and her specialist knowledge of the nuances of English grammar gives her an insight that proves to be the key that finally unlocks the identity of the murderer.

Meanwhile, the official police investigation, under the guidance of David Scott, comes to a completely different conclusion about the identity of the murderer. How can this contradiction be reconciled? A breathtakingly cynical bit of political opportunism is forced on to David by the high and mighty in the police force, and this allows both Gina and David to be (relatively) happy with the separate conclusions that they have reached (I have to be vague here – I don’t want to reveal a spoiler). And so, of course, they all live happily ever after. Until the next book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – Gina and her family are so well drawn that they leap out of the page at you and it isn’t long before you are caught up in the domestic details of their lives. Gina herself, like most teachers, has no illusions at all about the strengths and weaknesses of her students and of her daughters (though she’s still very much under the thumb of her baby granddaughter who is, of course, perfect in every way). The interactions between these characters are what gives this book its strength. They raise it above the crowd and although the formula might be a cliché, this implementation of it most certainly is not.

Lawrence Block is the grand old man of crime fiction. He has been enormously prolific over his very long life – I myself possess 107 of his books and my collection is by no means complete. One of his most popular characters is a private detective called Matthew Scudder, the hero of (so far) eighteen best selling novels.  A Time to Scatter Stones is a novella (originally published as a special edition from Subterranean Press but now available in a mass market edition) that is being advertised as the nineteenth Scudder story and I suppose, to a certain extent, that is the truth. Certainly Scudder has a starring role to play, but the page count of the "book" is so low that it scarcely allows room for any serious plot development, and so the subtleties and nuances that make the other Scudder stories so popular (and so delightful to read and re-read and re-read again) are quite lacking.

Matthew’s long time partner Elaine is an ex-prostitute. She is part of a group of former sex workers who give each other mutual support and advice. One of the girls who has quit the life, and who wants very much to stay out of it, tells the group about an abusive ex-client who is stalking her and who won’t let her move on. Elaine asks Matthew to try and find a way to bring an end to this abusive relationship. This he manages to do and his payment for services rendered is really rather eyebrow-raising…

It’s not a bad story, but it’s not a patch on the other Scudder books and I remain lukewarm about it. This one, I suspect, is really only for the completists.

In 1964 a sixteen year old Scottish girl who sung under the name of Lulu shot to the top of the British pop charts with a song called Shout! She had a powerful, raucous voice and her rendition of the song really made your toes curl. It says a lot for her performance that even today, more than half a century later, her version of that song remains definitive and it’s just as toe curling now as it ever was. Lulu’s real name was Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie though these days her legal name is Lulu Kennedy-Cairns. Lulu from her stage name, of course, and Kennedy-Cairns because of complicated family reasons to do with her grandparents. If you want to delve more deeply into any of these issues, you owe it to yourself to read I Don’t Want to Fight, her autobiography. I promise you won’t regret reading it – it tells a fascinating story.

Lulu was born in a Glasgow slum in 1948 and her tales of the hardships that she and her family suffered were really quite an eye-opener for me. I had no idea that such conditions existed in the middle years of the twentieth century. I thought they’d all vanished a century or more before. That just shows how little I know, I suppose, and how sheltered my own upbringing was during those same years. Strangely, despite the hardships she endured, Lulu looks back on those times with a degree of affection and nostalgia. Life may have been difficult but it wasn’t impossible, and generally speaking she had a happy childhood.

Her singing talent was her passport out of that life, of course. And so, at a very early age, she found herself right in the middle of the rock and roll lifestyle if the 1960s. She was a sixteen year old virgin surrounded by some of the most lecherous people in the history of popular music (according to the newspapers of the time), most of whom were at least a decade older than she was and all of whom were several centuries more experienced than she was. Naturally she was a little bit overwhelmed and frightened by it all, at least to begin with. To paraphrase her own words, when these kinds of people realise that they have a young virgin in their midst either they try very hard to plant their flag where no flag has ever been planted before or else they go all fatherly and start to protect her fiercely from any predators who may be circling round. Lulu reports that invariably she found that these dissipated, immoral lechers (as rumour would have them be) took her under their collective wing, put themselves in loco parentis and looked after her in a perfectly gentlemanly way. She has nothing but praise for them all. I think that says a lot about the personalities of both Lulu herself and of the so-called sex and drugs and rock and roll people she was surrounded by.

Of course, Lulu did not remain a virgin for the whole of her life. As she grew and matured and learned how to cope with life in general, she lived it to the full. After all, that’s what life is for. Her detailed description of a night that she once spent with David Bowie is positively steamy!

Lulu never really managed to repeat the chart success of Shout! As a result of that, her career took a different direction from that of most of her contemporaries. She became what an earlier generation might have called an all round entertainer. She hosted a TV variety show, she sang in the Eurovision Song Contest, and she made a very good living indeed. But she never lost touch with the many friends that she made during those heady years of the 1960s and her autobiography is full of insights into the character and personality of famous people who most of us only know from TV performances and one-sided journalism. To an extent this turns the book into a bit of a name-dropping exercise ("I was talking to Paul McCartney at a party..."). Normally I don’t like that sort of thing but Lulu adds a dimension to it that other, more shallow, biographies omit. She is incisive and wise and she knows how to look inside people’s heads. For all of these reasons, I think that I Don’t Want to Fight is a valuable social document. It’s also great fun to read!

Gregory Benford Re-Write Simon and Schuster
Robert Silverberg Up the Line Del Rey
Penny Freedman This is a Dreadful Sentence Troubador Publishing
Lawrence Block A Time to Scatter Stones LB Productions
Lulu I Don’t Want to Fight Time Warner
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