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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (magnifico solitudinem)

GeyserCon: Friday 31st May – Sunday 2nd June 2019

An SF convention was held
In a New Zealand city that smelled
Of hydrogen sulphide,
A stench that you can’t hide.
One lung full, and you will be felled!

The convention was organised by writers and so there was a big emphasis on writing in the programme. That doesn’t mean that other aspects of SF were ignored, it just means that writers and writing had a much larger place in the programme than is usually the case. I found this very refreshing. Furthermore, a lot of "traditional" items had completely vanished from the programme – there was no quiz, for example. This too I strongly applaud. Such programming ideas are old and well past their prime. They are long overdue for retirement. Just because something has always been done in the past is not a reason for continuing to do it in the future. I think it was very insightful of the organisers to recognise this.

It wasn’t only the programme that demonstrated the organisers determination to do away with tired old ideas. The floating market was gone and in its place we had a permanently open market in the hotel foyer. I always hated the floating market at other conventions – there was never time to browse properly and, because of time constraints, I always felt under great pressure to buy. The permanent market at GeyserCon addressed both these issues and had the added advantage that, because it was in the hotel foyer, it also attracted customers who weren’t part of GeyserCon but who did have other business at the hotel. Everybody wins!

* * * *

Darusha Wehm, who writes SF under the impenetrable pseudonym M. Darusha Wehm, has written a wonderful mainstream novel called The Home for Wayward Parrots. Brian Guillemot is adopted. His parents have never kept that a secret from him. But neither they nor he know anything about Brian’s birth parents. Once Brian is old enough to have access to the official documentation on his background, he goes looking for his birth parents and eventually makes contact with his birth mother. The contrast between Brian’s home environment and that of his birth family couldn’t be greater. Brian has grown up an only child in a well regulated household. His birth family is vast, sprawling, eccentric and anarchic. He has an enormous number of semi-siblings and his birth mother has an aviary full of extremely anti-social parrots. She works in a pet shop and, being soft hearted, likes to offer a home to the birds and animals that are just too nasty for the shop to sell.

Brian actually fits in quite well with his birth family and they all welcome him with open arms. However one mystery remains. Nobody knows who Brian’s father was. Obviously his birth mother knows, but for some reason it’s a topic she refuses to discuss. Of course, Brian does eventually find out who his father was, and he learns that the parrots had a vital role to play in what went on back in the day. And so the book ends with the final mystery solved.

Darusha never puts a foot wrong in this marvellous story. By turns it is laugh out loud funny, sometimes excruciatingly sad and often very emotional. The central theme, of course, is an examination of the feelings involved when an adoptee goes looking into their biological background. A failure here would invalidate the whole novel – but Darusha gets it exactly right. My cousin was adopted and, quite late in his life he searched out and made contact with his birth family. He shared some of the emotional ups and downs of that experience with me. Again and again as I read this book I found myself nodding in agreement as Darusha painted a word picture that corresponded exactly with what my cousin had told me.

This is a fine, funny, engrossing and ultimately very moving novel. When I got to the end I was disappointed that the story was over. I wanted more! That, I think, says it all.

In one sense, Kameron Hurley’s novel The Light Brigade can be regarded as a re-write of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, updated for the twenty-first century. Corporate giants rule the Earth. Governments as we know them have disappeared, swallowed by the ultimate capitalist goal of corporatisation. Those who are philosophically opposed to that doctrine have migrated to Mars and the corporations (when they aren’t squabbling among themselves) are fighting a seemingly never ending war against the Martians. Troops are transported to the field of battle by breaking them down into light and beaming them to where they are needed. Of course, accidents can happen when the beams of light are reconstituted.

Deitz joins a corporate army and, following the Starship Troopers model, goes through basic training and is then beamed off into battle. But after being converted into a light beam and sent off to fight, Dietz becomes one of the casualties of the light beaming process itself and starts to experience the war in non-linear time. The novel shows Deitz taking part in missions that have already happened in the past and then shows missions that take place in futures that Dietz has not yet experienced. Having foreknowledge of the war because of taking part in future campaigns means that Dietz now has information that provides a completely different picture of the war from that being painted by corporate propagandists. And so Dietz starts to question the social and political structures that define the corporate world view...

It is perfectly possible to read The Light Brigade as just a straightforward science fictional military adventure – and make no mistake about it, this is a very exciting and enthralling adventure story on that surface level. The very clever time-hopping incidents provide an interestingly novel notion that breathes a lot of life into what is, perhaps, a tired and perhaps overly familiar story framework.

However reading this very complex book on such a simple-minded basis would be a mistake. Like its famous predecessors, this is a very political (and very subtle) novel indeed.

The corporate structure is presented as the ultimate successful experiment of capitalism and the people who grow up under its influence are brainwashed into believing that they live in the best of all possible worlds and that their society is well worth dying for in order to preserve it. The enemy, of course, are utterly inhuman brutes! Everybody knows that.

But doesn’t every side in every war always believe those self-evident truths?

Quite early in the book, we come across this passage:

Jones stomped back into the circle of heat, kicking at the undergrowth. "Fuck these Martian socialists," he said, "and their fucking war."
"What’s the difference between a communist and a socialist?" Jawbone said.
We waited, thinking there was a punch line.
"You serious?" Jones said.
"Sure. I mean, I know they’re bad, but people use the names the same."
"They both want you to labor for somebody else," I said. "They want to bleed you out and feed you to lazy people."

The Martians are socialists, ideologically opposed to the capitalistic corporate society. And of course the Martians are perceived as natural enemies, evil incarnate, a completely alien society. The things that the corporate soldiers believe about the Martian socialists are laughably naive of course, but, in context, that’s not important. The corporate soldiers truly believe these things and that’s all that matters.

"They are indeed aliens," Sergeant Older said. "How did this conflict begin?"
"Sir," Martinez chimed in again, "they hate our freedoms, sir."

By this time, of course, we as readers have learned enough about the corporate society to realise that the people living in it have nothing that you or I would recognise as social or political freedoms at all. But you and I aren’t corporate soldiers (though I don’t doubt that there are people who would like us to be).

I won’t insult your intelligence by dwelling on the obvious analogies that are being played with here. Suffice it to say that the book takes the worrying political trends of the 2020s and pushes them to their logical conclusions – and then it pushes them just a little bit further. That’s a technique that lends itself perfectly to satire and to commentary. And that, of course is exactly what this book is all about, just beneath the surface dressing of a military SF story.

The Light Brigade is a very clever and very subversive book.

* * * *

The panel discussions and presentations that I attended were (with one exception which I’ll come to later) very well organised. Clearly a lot of preparation had gone into these programme items. The participants were full of interesting and well thought out ideas. In many cases they had far too much material to present and there was seldom time for the audience to have their say! This too I regard as a strength rather than a weakness. All too often at previous conventions I have seen badly prepared panellists and presenters struggle and flounder as they run out of things to say because they hadn’t thought the topic through before they sat down in front of their audience. Full marks to the organisers – they did brilliantly well with their programming.

I was particulary impressed with Kaaron Warren’s guest of honour spot. Lee Murray presented a very insightful question and answer session with Kaaron. Lee had clearly done her homework, and she asked interesting and insightful questions that shone a searching light on both Kaaron’s life and her writing.

Another highlight for me was a presentation by Gerry Huntman from IFWG (an Australian publisher) about the business of publishing books. It was quite an eye-opener. Gerry began the presentation by telling us about all the things he had done wrong when he first started the business and how, over time, he managed to address the problems that his mistakes had created. I was surprised at just how long it took before his business actually started to make money. I also hadn’t realised just how much the business depended on its relationships with other, ancilliary businesses such as distributors. Anyone who seriously wants to get into the business of publishing books, either as a proper business or for the purpose of self-publishing, would have found this presentation invaluable.

* * * *

Nathan Lowell has written several books under the overall series title of The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper. Pretty much nothing happens in these books and yet, somehow, I just can’t stop reading them. In the first book of the series, Quarter Share, the protagonist’s mother dies on page one and within a few more pages he is signed up as a galley steward on a space freighter. The rest of the book just tells us about the space freighter travelling hither and yon. Whenever it docks, the crew buy and sell stuff in an effort to turn a profit for themselves. Between times they drink a lot of coffee and talk about buying and selling stuff in order to turn a profit for themselves. And that’s it, that’s the whole story, there really isn’t anything else at all.

So, you might legitimately ask, why didn’t I get bored and stop reading? And the only honest answer I can give you is I’m damned if I know. I thoroughly enjoyed the books. I resented having to put them down and I couldn’t wait to pick them up again. It’s utterly ridiculous, but perfectly true. Somehow Nathan Lowell has managed to make people sitting round drinking coffee and talking about excruciatingly boring things completely and utterly fascinating. And if that isn’t magnificent art, I don’t know what is.

All That’s Dead is the twelfth novel in Stuart MacBride’s ongoing series about Detective Inspector Logan McRae. You don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy this one but it will certainly help if you are at least vaguely aware of what has gone before and what the relationships are between the various characters. The plot is particularly dumb, stupid and overly melodramatic, but that isn’t the point. You don’t read Stuart MacBride’s books for the sake of the plot, you read them for the genuinely hilarious dialogue and the pointedly witty observations – the novel gets full marks from me for both of these things. However you will need a strong stomach to read it – like most of MacBride’s books, it gets more than a little gruesome at times.

The plot, such as it is, makes much reference to Brexit, Scottish Nationalism, terrorism and alt-right prejudices so to that extent it is a very contemporary story indeed with much to say about present day life in the UK in general and Scotland in particular. Sooner or later, of course, these topics will vanish from the headlines and be replaced with other concerns, but that will not invalidate the story at all. Humour is timeless, and this is a very funny book.

I must confess that until I stumbled across The Fiend I had never heard of its author, Margaret Millar. Wikipedia informs me that she was married to Kenneth Millar who, under the pen name Ross Macdonald was a very popular detective novel writer in the middle years of the twentieth century. Margaret Millar herself was reasonably prolific during these same years, but perhaps her husband’s popularity overshadowed her own.

The Fiend was first published in 1964. I was motivated to read the novel by a quote from Anthony Boucher who said of it:

...It may well be the finest example to date of the fusion of the novel of character and the puzzle of suspense.
A superb thriller. From any point of view it is a master-work.

As Boucher observes, the book is very much a novel of character, much more perhaps than it is a straightforward mystery novel. One of the themes that it examines – paedophilia – took me very much by surprise. I didn’t know that popular fiction written in the 1960s had ever concerned itself with such forbidden topics.

It’s a very gloomy book. The story delves into the intimate details of the lives of two unhappily married couples, a very unhappy divorcee, two unhappy children, two quarrelling brothers and a rather depressed lawyer. There aren’t a lot of laughs to be had here. What rescues the book is Margaret Millar’s amazing ability to get inside the heads of all these people and to describe in thoroughly convincing detail just why they are who they are, and why it is that they do what they do. Her psychological insight is extraordinary.

* * * *

The one exception to the generally flawless presentations was a panel about the history of New Zealand science fiction fandom. One of the panellists told me beforehand that the panel members had been exchanging a lot of emails between themselves as they refined their ideas about what to say to their audience. All these emails had been copied to the panel moderator, but he hadn’t replied to any of them, which was a bit worrying…

On the day of the panel, the moderator introduced the panel members and then started a rambling, badly structured and extraordinarily dull presentation of some ideas that had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual topic of the panel. He was quickly interrupted and told that the panel was not about that subject. Hadn’t he read the definition of what the panel was about on the website or in the programme booklet? He admitted that he had not. Hadn’t he read the emails that the panellists had sent him about the things they felt needed to be discussed? He admitted that he had not.

The moderator, having covered himself in glory, retired behind a bottle of wine from where he took no further part in the proceedings. The remaining panellists then went on to present the usual interesting, thoughtful, well researched and well prepared discussion that was the norm for GeyserCon. Who needs moderators, particularly ones who have no idea what their panel is supposed to be about? Clearly as long as the panellists are well prepared and self-disciplined, moderators are not required.

* * * *

Carrying the Fire is the autobiography of Michael Collins, who was the command module pilot of Apollo 11. It was originally published in 1974, which is when I first read it. It’s been republished several times since then and a new edition has just appeared, presumably because this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins’ journey to the moon.

This is, without a doubt, the very best book that has ever been written about NASA’s brilliant achievements in the 1960’s as it struggled to fulfil President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. Collins has an enviable ability to describe the mood of the times and to tell us all about the people who worked so hard to make Kennedy’s promise come true.

Collins has a very dry sense of humour which, coupled with his sense of the ridiculous, makes some of his story laugh out loud funny. He is never afraid to poke fun at the bureaucracy that infested NASA and he is often quite cynical about some of the criteria that NASA used to select their astronauts. For example, when he first applied to become an astronaut, he was subjected to a barrage of psychological tests. He worried about what he was supposed to say. What pictures was he supposed to see in the Rorschach ink blots? And what about the dreaded totally blank sheet of paper? What on Earth (or off it) was he supposed to say about that? Once, when given that test he declared that what he saw was:

...nineteen polar bears fornicating in a snowbank, and the interviewer’s face tightened in obvious displeasure over my lack of reverence for his precious cards. Hostile, they said I was.

But clearly he was forgiven his polar bears for he was eventually offered a position as an astronaut and he went on to fly in both Gemini 10 and Apollo 11.

Collins goes into great detail about the depth of his training for these missions and he is full of praise for the way NASA implemented that training. The simulators in which he trained for his Gemini flight were so detailed that he felt it might have been easier and cheaper to train by flying the actual spacecraft!

He makes it very clear that he was only one person on a very large team and he talks at great length about the other astronauts with whom he worked. His insights into the personalities of the astronauts are particularly valuable. Most contemporary documents and reports were quite shallow, painting the astronauts as something akin to human robots. Nothing could be further from the truth and Collins shows these people to us, warts and all, describing, for example, the furore that erupted when John Young ate a corned beef sandwich in orbit. Walter Schirra had smuggled it into Young’s pressure suit pocket, unbeknown to the NASA bureaucrats. NASA reacted rather hysterically when Young ate it:

The medics claimed that somehow that sandwich had negated the flight’s medical protocol, while the engineers claimed that crumbs from it could easily have invaded the guts of the machinery with catastrophic effect. Some members of Congress became apoplectic, charging NASA with having lost all control of the astronaut group.

Complete nonsense of course. But it is a defining demonstration of the essential humanity of the men who posed so stiffly for NASA’s publicity pictures and regurgitated accepted jargon in press interviews.

Collins was perfectly well aware of the real nature of what he was training for and he was not blind to the narrow line that lay between success and failure. I found his sensitive, considerate description of the horrendous spacecraft fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in January 1967 to be particularly moving. But lessons are never wasted. There is always something to learn from even the worst disaster. Everyone recovered, and they carried on.

Of necessity, there are many technical asides in this book. But Collins never loses sight of the human aspects. While Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were on their way to the moon, mission control at Houston was often quite chatty and discursive in its communications with the crew, reading them daily news bulletins and the like. Collins records:

Houston adds to the confusion by keeping up a steady chatter on the radio, reading us the day’s news. "Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch out for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-O has been living there for four thousand years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree." Jesus Christ, am I imagining all this? Here I am, half asleep, trying to fix a tube full of coffee, about to watch two good friends depart for the crater fields of the moon, there to join a Chinese rabbit under a cinnamon tree! There are just too many things going this morning, and I have to force myself to stick with the activities of the flight plan. "A three-ring circus. I got a fuel-cell purge in progress and am trying to set up camera and brackets, watch an auto maneuver…" I grump groggily.

And then Armstrong and Aldrin got in to the lunar module and set off for the moon, leaving Collins by himself in the command module. As it circled away in orbit around the moon, Collins was completely isolated, out of contact with the Earth, further away from home than any person has ever been before, all alone with his thoughts.

I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon. I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God only knows what on this side. I feel this powerfully—not as fear or loneliness—but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation. I like the feeling. Outside my window I can see stars—and that is all.

Collins speaks very frankly about the difficulties of life back on Earth after the mission was over. Everything starts to feel anti-climactic after such an experience Many astronauts never really came to grips with those feelings. Buzz Aldrin, for example, succumbed to depression and alcoholism for a time. Then again, there is the temptation to give in to the lure of easy money. Collins himself records that:

...I have been offered $50,000 to do beer commercials, and I love beer, but somehow it seems a grubby thing to do…. So I remain flat broke, and I rationalize it by saying that it is a good thing, that it forces me to focus on the future, and that it keeps me lean and hungry in my outlook.

This is a thoughtful, insightful, witty and amazingly thorough description of the most exciting decade in NASA’s existence. In the forty five years since it was first published, no other book has even come close to defining the mood of the times in the way that Carrying the Fire does. If you have even the slightest interest in the history of America’s space programme you cannot claim to be well informed about it unless you have read this book.

* * * *

The opening and closing ceremonies were, unusually for this convention, rather badly presented. The Master of Ceremonies was very under-rehearsed. He had not prepared his introductions of the guests of honour – he just read their details directly from the programme booklet and, presumably because the material was new to him, he stumbled quite badly over the words. I also felt that he mis-judged his audience. The songs he sang and the jokes he told were old and over-familiar.

I’ll draw a veil over the embarrassments of the audience participation events… The whole thing reminded me of a Butlins Holiday Camp welcome from the 1950s. The only thing missing was a knobbly-knees contest. But since Norman Cates was wearing a kilt, the result of that would have been a foregone conclusion! (If this reference is lost on you, hunt out the BBC sitcom Hi-de-Hi!).

I greatly enjoyed GeyserCon – it’s probably the best organised convention I’ve ever attended. Well done everybody.

Darusha Wehm The Home for Wayward Parrots Newest Press
Kameron Hurley The Light Brigade Saga Press
Nathan Lowell Quarter Share Ridan
Nathan Lowell Half Share Ridan
Stuart MacBride All That’s Dead HarperCollins
Margaret Millar The Fiend Syndicate Books
Michael Collins Carrying the Fire Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In Memoriam: Ian Tindal 1963-2019


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