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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (dies natalis splendidibus)


"I’m five," said Jake the Dog. "I’m five. I’m a big boy now. I’m five!"

"Yes, you are," I said. Perhaps we should have a party to celebrate the occasion."

"That’s a good idea," said Jake. He thought about it for a moment, then he asked, "What’s a party?"

"All your friends come round and play games," I said. "And they eat and drink far too much."

"Sounds good," said Jake. "How do we go about arranging it?"

"The first thing to do is to leave an invitation for everyone," I said.

"OK," agreed Jake. "Let’s go for a walk and I’ll get the invitations ready."

I got Jake’s lead out of the cupboard, put on my hat and coat, and we went out into the wild, wet afternoon. Jake left a party invitation for his two best friends on every tree and lampost. With so many invitations left in so many places, they'd be certain to receive the message very quickly. By the time we got back home he was exhausted and completely drained. "There," he said, "that ought to do it. I’ll check for an RSVP tomorrow."

The next day we retraced our previous route and Jake checked each tree and lampost very carefully. "Maggie isn’t coming," said Jake, looking disappointed. He’s known Maggie since they were both puppies. They first met when they were students together at the Doggy Disobedience class. They passed disobedience with flying colours and they’ve been best friends ever since.

"That’s surprising," I said. "It’s not like Maggie to miss a party."

"She’s got to go to the vet," said Jake. "She’s got a little bit of an upset tummy. She ate someone who disagreed with her."

We carried on with our walk and Jake made another disappointing discovery. "Booki can’t come either," he said after sniffing carefully at a favourite tree.

"That’s a shame," I said. "Did he say why?"

"No, he was a bit vague," said Jake. "He just said that he had a previous engagement. But there was something very strange about the message."

"What was strange about it?" I asked.

"The reply was definitely from Booki," said Jake. "You simply can’t be anonymous when you’re a dog. But oddly, the message was in Tara’s handwriting!"

"That is peculiar," I agreed.

"Sometimes I wonder about Tara," said Jake thoughtfully. "Sniff at her bottom and she’ll follow you anywhere."

"I know a lot of people like that," I said.

"It looks like it’s going to be a small party," said Jake. "Just you and me and Robin. And Gilbert the Cat."

"Small," I agreed, "but perfectly formed."

* * * *

Exhalation is a new collection of stories by Ted Chiang, a man who is almost certainly the least prolific SF author in the world. He only writes short stories (though, to be fair, some of them do approach novella lengths) and his total output to date barely makes it into double figures. Nevertheless he is constantly being nominated for (and often wins!) prestigious awards. Yes, his stories really are that good.

There are nine stories in this collection though you should be warned that seven of them have previously been published here and there and they are readily available to anyone with an internet connection. Nevertheless, it is good to have the stories all bound together in one handy book even though Chiang junkies like me will find much that is familiar between the covers.

The stories exhibit all of his usual hobby horses – he dives very deeply into moral, philosophical and scientific ideas and he creates characters who demonstrate his concerns in sometimes very startling ways. But it is his skill at character creation and story telling that stops these tales from reading like dry as dust academic articles with dialogue. The academic thinking is certainly omnipresent (and Chiang sometimes swims in very deep philosophical waters indeed) but his characters are largely unaware of it. (This is not always true – the characters in the story The Lifecycle of Software Objects are very aware of the implications of what they are doing and they spend a lot of time debating it. Probably that is why this story is the longest that Ted Chiang has ever written).

Every story in the collection has an afterword in which Ted Chiang talks about the ideas that lurk behind the storytelling – these give fascinating glimpses into the way he thinks about the world and how he constructs stories from his speculations. It is clear from these afterwords that Ted Chiang himself is the very definition of a cerebral person, seeking inspiration in the juxtaposition of sometimes quite esoteric areas and seemingly unrelated ideas. One story, for example (Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom), was inspired by his thoughts on what might happen when quantum events interact directly with human psychology and the debate about whether or not we have free will – two things that, on the face of it, would seem to have no real connection with each other. Nevertheless, Ted Chiang found quite a profound connection and he went on to explore its ramifications in some detail.

But despite the range and the depth of his thinking, he always manages to keep his literary feet firmly planted in the realities of life. He truly understands how people think and feel when the world around them turns completely strange. And of course, if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything, no matter how academically clever you may be. I cannot recommend Exhalation highly enough. It is utterly, utterly brilliant.

Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories is, as the title implies, a collection of short stories by Kim Newman. It contains a short and rather dull Anno Dracula story set in 1899 in Japan which is apparently a teaser for a new Anno Dracula novel to be published some time later this year. I absolutely loved the first two Anno Dracula novels but I felt that the series went down hill from there and I must confess that I am not greatly looking forward to next one.

The other stories in the collection cover all the usual Kim Newman fetishes. There is much emphasis on arcane filmic lore and pulp horror novels. One story is told in the first person by a rather disgruntled Martian who, having survived the War of the Worlds (thanks to both Orson and H. G.), makes a career for himself as a bit part actor in terrible Hollywood B-movies. Another story is an Edgar Allen Poe narrative about Edgar Allen Poe…

It’s not a bad collection, but it overlaps a lot with several other Kim Newman collections so you may well find you’ve read some of the stories before. But really it has nothing new to say – Kim Newman is still ploughing the same furrow he’s always ploughed and therefore, for both of these reasons, it’s not a particularly good collection either.

John Sladek died in 2000. He was born in the USA, but spent much of his life in the UK. He was a stalwart of Michael Moorcock’s New Wave movement but, unlike a lot of the New Wave writers, he did not fall silent when the wave finally washed up on the shore and died away. During his lifetime, Sladek published a handful of uniquely brilliant, very surreal and satirical novels, all of which I absolutely loved. He also published a small number of superb story collections. But he was such an idiosyncratic (and also such a disorganised) writer that a lot of his work only ever appeared in ephemeral, short-lived and quite obscure publications.

In 2002, David Langford, himself a huge Sladek fan, set out to track down and republish Sladek’s ephemera and eventually he produced a book entitled Maps – The Uncollected John Sladek. Sladek was never a popular writer and Maps did not sell well (despite the fact that I bought it twice – once as a dead tree book and later as an ebook). Nevertheless Langford remained optimistic and continued to hunt for previously unknown Sladekiana and now, in 2019, he has published New Maps – More Uncollected John Sladek, another fairly substantial collection of more bits and pieces that he has managed to track down in the seventeen years since Maps was published. Hooray for Langford, I say!

Langford himself describes the collection as "Stories, essays, reviews and unclassifiable weirdness..." and I cannot do better than that. To be honest, it’s all fairly minor stuff that will only appeal to those of us who are already Sladek fans. But, I’m proud to say that even though I live on the opposite side of the world from David Langford, he assures me that I was the very first person to order a copy of the ebook from him. That’s an obscure thing to be proud of, but nevertheless I’m proud of it. And I can’t help thinking that somewhere Sladek himself is having a little chuckle at the fact that at least two people still remember his name and still read his writings and talk about his work from opposite sides of the globe…

A Boy And His Dog At The End Of The World is a novel by C. A. Fletcher, a writer who is new to me. My first, rather uncharitable, thought on seeing it was that it’s a good job that Harlan Ellison is dead, litigious grudge-bearer that he so often was. One of Ellison’s more famous stories was called A Boy And His Dog and I’m sure that if he’d ever come across this novel he would have immediately accused C. A. Fletcher of cashing in on his (Ellison’s) fame. He’d have been quite wrong. Certainly both are "after the apocalypse" stories and both sets of protagonists live in a sparsely populated world and have to forage for themselves. But the mood of Fletcher’s novel is very different from that of Ellison’s story. If I had to compare it to anything I’d say that it is much closer to the look and feel of Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven than it is to anything else.

Humanity has almost died out. A century or so before this story starts, people became unable to conceive and very few, if any, children were born to the last generation of the world. These days there are perhaps only a few thousand people alive on the planet, if that. The infertility crisis was known as the Gelding. Nobody was really sure what caused it, but its effects are all too apparent – the world is empty. Griz, the narrator of the story, lives with his family on one of the Orkney islands, off the coast of Scotland. His family are the only people on the island. One day a stranger sails into the harbour. This causes much excitement. However he proves to be a rather nasty piece of work – he kidnaps and sails away with Griz’s favourite dog. Griz, of course, sets off in pursuit. The novel tells the tale of what happened next…

It is a moving and melancholy novel, beautifully written. I felt a huge emotional involvement with Griz and his quest – partly that’s because I have a dog of my own so I completely understood how Griz was feeling. But mainly I think it was because Fletcher is such a superb writer. He/she (I have no idea) made the empty world that Griz travels across seem incredibly real and I was there with Griz all the way through to the quite astonishing ending. This is a truly magnificent book.

Ben Elton’s new novel Identity Crisis takes on the battalions of the politically correct brigade and skewers them unmercifully on sharply pointed swords of satire. It opens with a murder investigation. A young woman walking home alone has been killed with a single blow to the head, probably from a hammer. Detective Inspector Mick Matlock, who is in charge of investigating the crime, uses an unfortunate phrase in a public briefing. He says that the young girl was unlucky to have been in "...the wrong place at the wrong time...". Storm clouds of protest are immediately tweeted and blogged. How dare he suggest that her death was her own fault? How dare he insinuate that a young woman cannot walk alone wherever she wants to walk? How can he possibly claim that she brought her fate on herself by choosing to walk on that particular path? Why is he saying that her death was her own fault? Of course, that was the very last thing that Mick Matlock was claiming, but nobody will listen to his explanations and he is forced to issue a public apology. He misspoke. That is not who he is. He will seek counselling...

Every current social and political trend that you can think of (and probably quite a few that you can’t) are taken to their (il)logical conclusions in this tremendously funny book. And all of them suffer a crisis of credibility as a result. We live in a time where far too many people seem to be offended by just about everything they see and hear and misinterpret. And, of course, the various social media give all these people a platform on which to express their outrage to the world. All (HAH!) that Ben Elton has done is to extrapolate and dramatise these trends. The results speak for themselves.

The unsettling thing, for me at least, is that he really does not have to extrapolate any of these ideas very far. The beginnings of the scenarios that he describes are already there for all to plainly see, lurking just beneath the surface. Consequently the totally ridiculous scenarios that he pictures have the ring of truth about them. You will recognise all the characters in this novel, albeit perhaps reflected in a slightly distorted mirror. That makes this book at one the same time both very funny and also more than a little worrying. There but for the Grace of God…and even that phrase will probably upset somebody (in the context of the book, at least) despite the fact that I am using it colloquially rather than religiously.

Feminism, LGBTQCDEFHIJKLMNOPRSUVWXYZ+ issues, the habits and peccadilloes of politicians, Brexit, the cynicism of people who express beliefs that they do not hold, simply in order to keep earning a crust -- all of these and more are Ben Elton’s targets, and he hits every one of them dead centre.

A minor plot thread that will perhaps give you some idea of the tone of the novel is the attempt made by militant feminists to prosecute sexual predators retrospectively. The diaries of Samuel Pepys make it clear that he was the epitome of a sexual predator. Without a doubt, he held women in contempt, seeing them as merely sexual playthings rather than as people. A movement is started to bring him to trial for his crimes – the fact that he has been dead for four centuries is regarded as irrelevant. He must be made to pay for his crimes. After many manoeuvrings, he is charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to six years in prison. His name is placed on the sexual offenders register.

There’s something in this book to upset, annoy and offend absolutely everybody (perhaps the title should be changed to Trigger Warning). Ben Elton has never been funnier. Worryingly he has never been more serious either. This novel is a work of comic genius and the very best commentary on the idiocy of our times that I have ever read (or that I am ever likely to read).

Harry Sidebottom’s novel The Lost Ten is a stand alone historical adventure story set in the Roman empire of the third century AD. A small band of elite Roman soldiers (frumentarii) venture into deepest, darkest Persia charged with a mission to rescue a Persian prince from confinement in the Castle of Silence. If the story was set in the modern day, it would be an SAS thriller written by Andy McNab or Chris Ryan. It seems fairly clear from the blurb and the context that this was exactly the model that Harry Sidebottom had in mind when he sat down to write the story.

Sidebottom is a historian whose speciality is third century Rome so it almost goes without saying that the historical details are breathtakingly accurate – you can smell the stench of the cities and towns as you turn the pages. Furthermore, the cynicism that motivates the political manoeuvrings which lie behind the mission feels genuinely authentic. As a result, the novel is a completely immersive page turner.

* * * *

The day of the party dawned warm and clear. "Happy birthday, Jake," I said and gave him a bone.

"Oh boy!" said Jake, "A bone! Just what I’ve always wanted. How did you know?" His voice was a bit muffled because he had a bone in his mouth. He took the bone to the middle of the lawn and flopped down to start licking it. Then he chewed it a bit, making noises that sounded just like teeth breaking. I worried about that for a moment, but then Gilbert the Cat got a bit too close to the bone and Jake growled at him to warn him away. Both Gilbert and I could clearly see that all Jake’s teeth were still firmly in place. Gilbert counted them, one by one, just to make sure they were all there. I stopped worrying and left Jake to his bone.

"Can I have a lick?" Gilbert asked Jake. "Pretty please, with knobs on."

"No," said Jake. "Go away."

"You know," said Gilbert thoughtfully, "you might find that it would go down more smoothly if you inhumed it for a while. Inhuming adds flavour and texture."

"Inhume?" asked Jake. "How do you inhume a bone?"

"Don’t you know anything?" asked Gilbert scornfully. "When you dig a bone up, you exhume it. So when you bury it, you inhume it. Simple!"

"Ah! I know how to do that," said Jake. "I was planning on doing it later so that I could have the bone for dessert. And maybe for breakfast tomorrow as well. But now that you’ve put the idea into my head..." He carried his bone over to the patch of garden that Robin had carefully mulched and composted the day before. It was beautifully soft, moist and squishy there, very easy to dig. So much of our garden is covered in decoratively laid rocks, and just underneath them is solid, dry clay. When Jake digs there it tends to break his toenails, and he is very vain about his toenails. He spends ages trimming and shaping them so as to get them just right. I always shout at him whenever he gives himself a pedicure, because he makes such disgusting slobber-sucking, grinding noises while he’s shaping and polishing his nails. So these days he tends to do it when I’m not around.

The chance to dig in soft soil was just too good for Jake to resist and it wasn’t long before Robin’s carefully prepared flowerbed was scattered to the four corners of the garden. Jake placed his birthday bone carefully in the hole he’d dug and then he shovelled as much soil as he could back into the hole. The final touches involved him scooping up mountains of mulch with his nose and piling it artistically on top of the inhumation site. Then he came to tell me all about what he’d done and how clever he felt he’d been. He seemed quite hurt when I proved to be less than impressed.

"What’s the matter?" he asked, honestly puzzled.

"Look at the carpet," I said.

We both looked at the carpet. Muddy paw prints criss-crossed it and there were several piles of black dirt placed in carefully chosen strategic positions where Jake had sneezed, thereby causing the mounds of mud on his snout to fall off. "I think that’s a rather pretty effect," said Jake. "Quite artistic. However, if you really want to remove it, just let it dry and then you can vacuum it up, easy peasy. But wait until I’m not around before you do it. I’m scared of the vacuum cleaner."

"I’ll do it tomorrow," I said. "I don’t want to spoil your birthday party."

Jake glanced out of the window. "Excuse me," he said, "Gilbert’s getting a bit too close to my inhumed bone. I need to go and stare at him until he goes away." He went outside and did just that. Eventually Gilbert washed himself nonchalantly in order to show that he didn’t feel at all threatened, and then he wandered away to deal with important cat business. Jake exhumed his bone. He felt that it had been underground long enough now to have enhanced both its flavour and its texture. He was eager to return to it.

He spent the rest of the afternoon tending to his bone. First he licked off the dirt, then he chewed the bone for a while. Next he picked it up and walked round the garden with it, pausing every now and then to see if this new garden spot was any better for bone chewing than the last one had been. Rinse, lather, repeat.

As the sun went down and darkness spread itself over the garden, he came back into the house, a tired and happy dog. He walked towards me across the carpet carefully avoiding the patches of dirt that he’d left there earlier and depositing new ones in all the clean spaces. "That was a great party," he said.

"I’m glad you enjoyed it," I said. "But it’s been a pretty exhausting day. It’s probably time for bed. Say goodnight, Jake."

"Goodnight, Jake," said Jake obediently.

* * * *

For many years, Van Ikin has been editing an Australian academic journal called Science Fiction - A Review of Speculative Literature. The latest edition is a double issue (Volume 19 Numbers 1 and 2) which is dedicated to a detailed examination of the life and works of Phillip Mann. I’ve long been an admirer of Phillip’s work, so I was very pleased to see him get the critical attention that he so well deserves. This issue contains in-depth reviews of all of Phillip’s novels by many well respected critics. It also contains a superb selection of some of his shorter fiction. But it was the other articles that were, for me, the highlights of the issue.

Clare Coney worked as an editor for Gollancz and her story of how she discovered Phillip’s novel The Eye Of The Queen in the slushpile and saw it all the way through to final publication was quite fascinating. She points out that she routinely read 15-20 slushpile submissions a week for about four years (do the arithmetic – that’s something on the order of 4000 manuscripts, a frighteningly large total). Only two of those 4000 hopeful authors ever made it into print. Phillip was her first discovery (later she promoted the mainstream novelist Barbara Trapido) and for that reason he has always remained close to her heart.

One of the strengths of many of Phillip’s stories is the skill with which he constructs and describes alien life forms. His books contain some of the most imaginative, most grotesque and yet somehow the most believable aliens ever to appear in the genre. Michael J. Tolley has a fascinating article which examines how well Phillip uses these aliens in his stories and how they fit so naturally into the context of the storytelling.

The issue also has an extended interview with Phillip himself – Van Ikin, David McCooey, Michael J. Tolley and George Turner ask him some quite searching questions about his writing. His answers to these questions are a fascinating glimpse into the way he constructs his stories or, more accurately perhaps, the way that his stories construct themselves inside his head. He says that sometimes he finds that he wants his characters to do something for plot reasons but they want to do something else for what they feel are much more compelling story reasons. When this happens, Phillip always writes what his characters tell him to write because, in his own words:

The characters always win for without your characters on your side you have no story, no book,
just a heap of dead words which slowly starts to smell

I think that says a lot about why I find his novels so compulsively readable. They just feel right!

One point quickly becomes very clear. Phillip regards himself as a novelist in the strictly artistic, genre-independent sense of the word. His literary concerns are very much those of the mainstream. Nevertheless he feels quite comfortable in the genre role of a writer of SF. He says:

...I do regard myself as a science fiction writer. I am proud to be one.
As to why I am one, I have no idea. It is just that science fiction is how my mind works.

I think is a sentiment that we can all understand, whether we are writers or whether we are readers. It’s how our minds work. What more needs to be said?

One of my (not so) guilty pleasures is an enormous fondness for novels written by Wilbur Smith. I’ve always regarded him as the modern day incarnation of Henry Rider Haggard, a writer I admire hugely. On Leopard Rock is Wilbur Smith’s autobiography and, reading it, I was very interested to discover that he too is a great admirer of Rider Haggard and that he has consciously modelled his stories on those of the master. He’s also a huge fan of C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels (as am I) and one of his proudest possessions is a complete set of Hornblower first editions which he has had bound in calfskin. I must confess that I’m jealous…

In his first few novels he diligently applied the principle of writing about what you know, and his stories of adventures in the African bush very much reflect his own experiences as a boy growing up in what was then Rhodesia. That was a writing lesson that he learned very well, and when he branched out into more esoteric locations and concerns he always made sure to do his research diligently. Consequently his books have an air of authenticity about them even in their more melodramatic moments. For example, his novel Gold is set in a South African gold mine and Smith spent many months working in just such a mine purely in the interest of getting it right. You have to admire such dedication.

Later, he developed an interest in the archaeology of pre-historic Africa and his studies in this area resulted in The Sunbird – in my opinion his very best book. I stayed up all night reading it because it cast a spell on me and simply wouldn’t let me go. His interest in Egyptology led him to write River God, another page turner that held me enthralled (though I was less than happy with the increasingly dire sequels…)

If you like Wilbur Smith’s novels you will find his autobiography quite fascinating for its insights into both his life and his art. But I must confess I could have done without the seemingly endless pages that describe his hunting and fishing exploits in tedious detail. I found these passages quite dull and, on occasion, more than a little bit offensive. He proclaims himself to be a conservationist. He declares that he has the animals’ best interests at heart. And without a doubt there is a certain justice in the case he makes that culling them actually protects the animals in the long term. But nevertheless I felt more than a little repulsed by the obvious joy that Smith himself seems to take in inflicting pain and death on the animals he professes to love so much. It’s a vaguely obscene contradiction that sits a little uneasily with me. On balance, it is something that I’d have preferred not to know about a man whose books I generally admire...

Peas and Queues is a book about twenty-first century manners and etiquette by Sandi Toksvig. I actually listened to the audiobook version of this rather than reading it on the printed page and I was very pleased to find that she herself was reading the book to me.

Sandi was born in Denmark. She has dual Danish/English citizenship and she has spent a lot of time living in America. Despite all of this globe trotting, she has a very upper class, glass-etching English accent. Listening to her, you’d swear that all her ancestors had been made out of tweed for generations! In addition to all this, she exhibits the very driest of dry wit in all her proclamations, and I strongly suspect that you really have to be English in order to fully appreciate what she is saying. I mention this because, taken at face value, much of this book is actually quite tedious, not to say obvious – for example she claims that it is the height of bad manners to be rude to your waiter or to check your phone at the dinner table. And of course both these things are social gaffes of the highest order, as all of us know very well (except, of course for those few benighted individuals who habitually indulge themselves in both these pastimes, damn them all!).

The delight of this book lies in the way in which Sandi tells you not to do the things you shouldn’t do. And, just as importantly, she also has quite a lot to say about the things you should do as well. After all, manners maketh the man (in the very broadest sense of the word). To my mind at least, almost every sentence in this delightful book is excruciatingly funny. I’m quite sure that my giggles and sniggers as I walked my dog while listening to Sandi’s wonderful voice pouring good advice into my ears has added greatly to my reputation for eccentricity!

* * * *

The next day Jake and I went for our usual morning walk. As we so often do, we met Maggie. "Hello Maggie," said Jake. "Are you feeling better?"

"Yes, thanks," said Maggie. "Do you want to play chase?"

"Yes, please," said Jake, and they both dashed off towards the horizon. The sound of frantic barking echoed faintly back to me as it bounced off the houses, waking all the sleepyheads who were still tucked up snug and warm in their beds at 6.30am. Serves them right for being such lazybones, I thought to myself.

Eventually Jake came back. He had a huge grin on his face and several yards of tongue hung dripping out of the side of his mouth. "I’ve left a message for Booki," he said "I’ve told him what a great party he missed."

"I’m sure he’ll be sorry he couldn’t make it," I said.

"Maggie wrote the note for me," said Jake. "I hadn’t realised just how much fun that could be until she did it. Now I know why Booki got Tara to write his RSVP. Clever boy, that Booki."

Then he winked at me.

Ted Chiang Exhalation Knopf
Kim Newman Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories Titan Books
John Sladek New Maps – More Uncollected John Sladek Ansible
C. A. Fletcher A Boy And His Dog At The End Of The World Orbit
Ben Elton Identity Crisis Bantam
Henry Sidebottom The Lost Ten Zaffre
Van Ikin (Editor) Science Fiction - A Review of Speculative Literature
#49-50 Volume 19 Numbers 1+2
Wilbur Smith On Leopard Rock HarperCollins
Sandi Toksvig Peas and Queues Profile Books
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