Previous Contents

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (domus lautus)

The Suck Fairy

It all began when, on the advice of friends, we decided that we needed to buy a Dyson V11 Absolute vacuum cleaner. "Nothing else will do when you have animals in the house," our friends assured us. "Only a Dyson V11 Absolute will keep your house squeaky clean and free of fur."

We were dubious.

"No really," they said. "Before we got ours, a friend who is very allergic to cats had to dose himself to the eyeballs with anti-histamines before he came to visit and he still always had to leave early because he reacted so badly. But now that we have a Dyson V11 Absolute he can stay at least half an hour longer than he’s ever managed to stay before!"

We expressed interest.

"It’s also very pretty and futuristic," they said. "Perfect for science fiction fans. It has a long, thin cylindrical shaft which is, of course, a tasteful shade of purple. At one end of the shaft you can attach any one of a variety of nozzles. At the other end you attach a grunty, battery powered motor together with a transparent plastic cylinder that fills up with the grunge that is sucked up the shaft as you vacuum. It’s utterly fascinating to watch! Much better than television."

"So what you seem to be describing," we said, "sounds like a rather skinny vacuum cleaner which you don’t have to plug in when you use it because it’s battery driven. I presume there’s a charger for the battery?"

"That’s right," they said. "The Dyson V11 Absolute sits there charging all the time until you want to use it. Then you just pick it up and start vacuuming. Just like that. You don’t have to faff around plugging it in and struggling with recalcitrant hoses."

"How can that possibly work?" we asked. "How can you have a vacuum cleaner without flexible hoses and a power cord to trip over while you clean the house? It’s not natural. It makes no sense."

"Magic," they said. "Or possibly sufficiently advanced technology."

It was a convincing argument. As I considered its merits, Jake the Dog wandered over with a stuffed llama. One of our friends played tug of war with it. Jake growled impressively and shook both the llama and himself vigorously back and forth. Huge clumps of fur floated off him and stuck to the carpet. I began to believe that our friends might have a valid point.

Robin went to Google – that infallible source of absolute truth – and checked up on Dyson V11 Absolute vacuum cleaners. "Dyson controls the prices quite rigidly," Robin said. "So nobody discounts them. They cost the same no matter where you buy them. I think we should buy ours from Noel Leeming because they are offering triple Fly-Buys this week."

"That’s a very good idea," I said. Off we went to Noel Leeming.

* * * *

Let’s start with the best book I’ve read so far this year,  Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

Towards the end of our era on the Earth, humanity has conceived a great project. A world in another star system has been terraformed and seeded with life and also with a virus specially designed and tailored to uplift any species that it infects. The final stage of the project involves colonising the world with monkeys, the expectation being that over the course of a few generations, the virus will uplift the monkeys to a point where they can develop a civilisation of their own. Unfortunately the monkeys don’t survive. But nevertheless the virus still has a job to do. Working with the best material available to it, it gradually uplifts spiders to a point where they become the dominant species controlling a very odd (but very convincing) biologically based technology. All this takes several thousand years, of course…

Meanwhile, our era on Earth has ended, leaving behind the wreckage of cities and space colonies scattered through the solar system. The people who came after us cannibalise a kind of technological society from the wreckage of the old. Eventually they construct starships that reach out to the terraformed planets. One particular starship (possibly the last surviving one) comes to the planet of the spiders. And that is where the story really starts…

There are several strands to the tale developed in this long and complex novel and all of them are quite fascinating. There is the story of the gradual ascent  of the spiders as they struggle to become the dominant species on their planet, slowly learning how the world works and developing the necessary skills, both technological and social, to work with it, There is the story of the starship and the conflicts and power struggles that develop among the crew. There is the story of what happens when humans and spiders meet each other – how will two very different technological societies with two very different ways of looking at the world cope with each other? And there is the smaller, behind the scenes story of what happened back on Earth as the old society fell and gave way to the new. Adrian Tchaikovsky handles all these story threads with consummate artistry weaving all the strands of his complicated story seamlessly together with humour, insight and skill. This is a perfect example of what science fiction is supposed to be like, but all too often isn’t. Children of Time is a magnificent tour de force.

I’m a sucker for post apocalyptic novels and so I approached A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen with keen anticipation. The apocalypse in this case is a flu-like pandemic that has wiped out about 70 percent of the human race. But life after this event seems to go on much as it did before except that the cell phone signal is a lot weaker than it used to be, and power cuts happen rather more frequently. In this strangely unchanged (and correspondingly unconvincing) post-apocalyptic world, four characters struggle with questions of identity and morality, as they try to come to grips with where their responsibilities lie in order to be properly part of a family.

I found the novel quite disappointing. It seemed to me that it was actually a mainstream story that had been shoehorned into an SF setting where it didn’t really belong, and that meant that it could never quite make up its mind about what it really wanted to be! If Chen had made it a bit more science fictional, or if he’d thrown all the SF trappings away and made it completely a mainstream novel, it would have been a much stronger work. As it is, it falls uncomfortably between two stools and fails to match up to its aspirations.

Back in the 1970s, Ken Bulmer wrote several SF novels using the pseudonym Tully Zetford. When he was asked why he’d chosen that name, he explained that he was sick and tired of seeing Roger Zelazny’s name at the very end of alphabetical lists of SF authors, so he chose a name that would put him at the end instead. Take that Zelazny! Bulmer died in 2005, still happily ensconced at the bottom of all the alphabetical lists. Unfortunately fifteen years have passed since then and now Tully Zetford has lost his throne. These days Victor Zugg reigns supreme at the very bottom. That noise you can hear is the rattling of dry bones as the frustrated Tully Zetford spins round and round and round in his grave…

Victor Zugg’s novel A Ripple in Time is a fairly routine but very competently told story of a group of people who fall through a time warp from the twenty-first century and find themselves marooned on the Carolina coast in the early eighteenth century. It’s an inhospitable time and place to be. The natives are hostile, the plantations around the British settlement of Charles Town are worked by slave labour, and pirates patrol the sea lanes.

I quite enjoyed the story. It contains no surprises, the plot unfolds exactly as you would expect it to. But the story dealt with a place and a time that I was largely unfamiliar with, and as the marooned time travellers slowly explored and came to understand the environment in which they found themselves, I too found myself gaining an understanding that I hadn’t had before. Victor Zugg has done a superb job of bringing eighteenth century Carolina to life. I think it is safe to say that he has truly earned his position at the very bottom of the list. Hmmm. I’m not sure that came out quite the way I intended...

* * * *

The Noel Leeming salesman was extremely helpful. He demonstrated a Dyson V11 Absolute for us. He poured dirt on to a strip of carpet and vacuumed it up again. "I wonder where that came from?" he mused as he stared at the rubbish in the collection cylinder. "I’ve not seen that lump of grit before. I think someone must have been walking on this carpet when I wasn’t looking."

"Sorry..." I apologised.

He explained all the bits and pieces that made up the Dyson V11 Absolute.  Then he pointed to the device that the demonstration model was attached to. "This," he said, "is the charger. You just screw it to the wall in a convenient location, plug it in to a power socket, and hang the vacuum cleaner on it."  He thought for a moment. "It’s a good idea to screw the charger to a wall that is somewhere near a power point..."

"I don’t fancy doing that," said Robin. "Once the charger is screwed to the wall we won’t be able to relocate it, should the fancy take us, without leaving a mess."

"Fortunately," said the salesman, "Dyson have thought of that problem and they have an ideal solution. What you need is a Dok."

"Hickory, dickory," I said, delighted. "Dok?" I asked.

"It’s a free standing unit that the charger can attach to," explained the salesman. "which you then plug in to any convenient socket. With a Dok, there is no need to attach anything to the wall. And for this month only, Dyson have a special offer. If you go to their web site and provide proof of purchase, they will send you a Dok absolutely free of charge!"

That was just too good a deal to resist. We paid for the Dyson V11 Absolute. "And you get triple Fly-Buy points," said the lady who was operating the till. "Have you got your card?"

I proffered a card.

"That’s an Air-Points card," said the lady. "It won’t work with Fly-Buys."

Robin dug around in her wallet and proffered a card of her own.

"That’s an Air-Points card," said the lady. "It won’t work with Fly-Buys."

"That’s all we’ve got," I said. "Maybe we don’t have Fly-Buys after all."

Shamefaced at our abject Fly-Buys failure, we sneaked out of the shop and took our Dyson V11 Absolute home.

I watched Robin unpack the new Dyson V11 Absolute from its box. "Purple!" she said, clearly feeling deeply satisfied. Then she assembled it –  unlike me, she is extremely good at putting together the jigsaw puzzle pieces of new appliances quickly and efficiently. When I try and do it, I always seem to end up with a spare ball bearing...

She pressed a button and the motor whined into life, burbling to itself. Experimentally, Robin ran the nozzle over a patch of carpet. "Wow!", she said, greatly impressed. An astonishing amount of rubbish flew up the shaft into the plastic cylinder. Dog fur, cat fur, grit, grime and six bewildered cockroaches that the Dyson had sucked out of some secret sanctuary all swirled round and round in the cylinder. In no time at all the cylinder was full and Robin switched the Dyson V11 Absolute off so that she could empty it out. "Look," she said to me. "Isn’t that amazing?"

"It certainly is," I said, vastly impressed with the quantity of rubbish the Dyson V11 Absolute had pulled out of the carpet. "There’s only one problem."

"What’s that?" asked Robin.

"All that junk came out of a very small area of carpet," I said. "And now that  patch of carpet is several shades lighter than the rest of it."

"Hah!" said Robin, brandishing the newly emptied Dyson V11 Absolute. "You and I can soon fix that."

I tried it out on another patch of carpet. There’s no doubt about it, a Dyson V11 Absolute really, really sucks.

* * * *

The Runner is a stand alone (at the moment anyway) thriller by Stephen Leather. It’s a definite page-turner. Sally Page works for MI5 as a footie, a very junior officer whose responsibilities are limited to looking after safe houses and living the life of "legends" – false identities that will be used by other agents in the course of their duties. She does online shopping, uses payment, loyalty and travel cards and goes on social media in the names of these legends. The net effect is to give the impression that the legends are real people so that when the identities are adopted by agents, any close scrutiny will find lots of evidence to back up the reality of the person the agent is pretending to be.

One day Sally leaves the house where she is currently living with some other footies to go and get coffee for everyone. When she returns she finds that everybody in the house has been shot. They are all dead. And someone is trying to kill her as well.

Sally is on the run, and she is all alone. She can’t even phone her bosses for help because the evidence suggests that someone at MI5 might be behind the killings. And of course there’s the big question hanging over everything – why is someone killing the footies? Footies don’t know anything, they aren’t involved in any active investigations, they don’t know any secrets. There’s no reason to kill them. What is going on?

There is no depth or subtlety to The Runner. The book has no other purpose than to tell a thrilling tale and it serves that purpose superbly well. Thrillers really don’t get much better than this.

David Young’s Stasi Child is the first novel in an ongoing police procedural series set in East Berlin in the 1970s. Karen Muller is an officer in the Volkspolezei (the people’s police,Vopos for short). The Vopos handle normal day to day policing duties for the State.

Karen is investigating a murder – a young girl has been killed, shot, it seems, by a West German sniper as she tries to escape from the West to take refuge in the more enlightened East. Before you get too worked up by that statement let me qualify it by saying that Karen doesn’t believe it either. Cynicism is her daily companion. She has no illusions about the lifestyle differences between the East and the West. But there must be a reason why someone wants her to believe the story that has been set up for her. Clearly there are political overtones, and that’s why the Stasi get involved of course…

The novel is a very clever whodunnit (with important elements of whydunnit as well). It brilliantly evokes the stultifyingly dismal and grey aspects of day to day life in East Berlin, and it makes some sharp political points along the way, points that are still very valid even though the Stasi and their political masters are now only a dim memory.

The Vopos (and even the Stasi) are very limited in what they can and can’t do or say. If they overstep those boundaries there is a very real risk that they will find themselves treading on some powerful political toes, and nobody wants that to happen. Who watches the watchers? And who watches those who watch the watchers? Even the highest in the land are not immune.

Stasi Child is quite an eye-opening novel for those of us who are used to living a less grimly structured lifestyle than that endured by Karen Muller.

Louise Luna has written two novels about Alice Vega, who is a sort of combined bounty hunter and private detective. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed both of them. In Two Girls Down, Alice is hired to find two missing children and in The Janes she is hired to investigate the murders of two child prostitutes who are almost certainly illegal immigrants, probably imported from Mexico.

Alice is tough and uncompromising and clever. When she has to be, she can be brutal – bolt cutters are her weapon of choice. She finds them to be a very useful tool for both protecting herself when attacked, and for extracting information from those who are reluctant to talk. But unlike so many tough private eyes in far too many routine novels, Alice is vulnerable. Despite her toughness, she can be hurt, sometimes quite badly, during the course of her investigations.

There are two aspects of these novels that I greatly admired. The first is the character of Alice herself. She really comes alive on the page, so it is very easy to identify with her. She is certainly odd, with some eccentric ideas about the way the world works, but I think that makes her all the more interesting. The second thing I liked are the complicated plots that really are full of surprises.

I started Two Girls Down fully expecting that the story would follow the usual track of these kinds of books with the tension building as the hunt for the two missing girls drags on and on. I thought that the girls would eventually be found either alive or dead. If alive I expected them to be reunited with their family and everyone would live happily ever after. If dead, at least the parents would have closure. Either way, I expected the story to end there. Needless to say, I was completely wrong in my expectations.

About three quarters of the way through the book we do indeed find out what happened to the girls. But the reasons that lie behind their kidnapping (and indeed, the very identity of the kidnapper) have not yet been explained. Alice’s job is not finished and the fate of the girls takes a back seat to the unravelling of a complex set of circumstances that go back over many, many years. Nobody escapes unscathed – even Alice is scarred by what she learns. Psychological wounds can be just as real as physical ones. The story ends with a lot of wounded people whose lives will never be the same again. Nevertheless, despite the grim conclusions, it is a very satisfactory ending. It rings true in a way that more dramatic, more gory, more routine novels by other people do not.

Similar considerations apply to The Janes. We’ll pass lightly over the puzzling question as to why a police department asks a private detective to help with their murder investigation – reasons are provided in the story, but of course they aren’t the real reasons. That quickly becomes apparent.

The murders are solved about half way through the book, and that’s when the story starts getting very strange. Alice has been badly wounded in the confrontation with the murderers. She wakes in a hospital bed to find a doctor stitching up her wounds. She is hooked up to a drip. There is no sign of her clothes. No matter how many times she presses the button to call for a nurse, nobody responds. There is no phone in her room and she has no cell phone reception. Most worrying of all, two armed policemen are sitting just outside the door of her room. They are polite and courteous, but very firm. Alice isn’t going anywhere.

Perhaps this too has some bearing on the question of why she was hired to help the police in the first place.

I can’t go any further than this without massive spoilers. Just let me say that both these books stand head and shoulders above the normal run of the mill, detective thrillers. I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for more stories about Alice Vega.

* * * *

All we needed now was a Dok. I went to the Dyson web site to see about claiming my free Dok. After thirty minutes or so of clicking and searching and clicking again I utterly failed to find any information about claiming a free Dok apart from a veiled hint that if I bought a Dyson V11 Absolute directly from Dyson themselves rather than from a store, they might, if the mood took them, send me a Dok as well. Feeling no great urge to buy a second Dyson V11 Absolute, I decided that perhaps I had misunderstood the Noel Leeming salesman. Perhaps I was meant to claim my Dok from the Noel Leeming web site. I rang Noel Leeming and explained my problem to a nice lady.

"You’ll never find it on the Dyson web site," she explained. "They don’t have any direct links to the page where you claim your free Dok. I can tell you the appropriate URL if you like, but it’s easier to just look up Dyson V11 Absolute on the Noel Leeming web site. We’ve put a direct link to the proper Dyson page there. Just click on it and away you go."

I thanked the nice lady and followed her instructions. The next thing I saw was a Dyson web page that asked me to fill in my details so I could claim my free Dok. Easy peasy. I filled in the serial number of my Dyson V11 Absolute and I provided my name, address, email address and telephone number. I uploaded a scan of my Noel Leeming receipt as proof of purchase and I clicked the submit button. The page thought about it for a moment, then the screen cleared and a new page appeared. The new page said:

Thank you. We have successfully received your submission for an employee discount code. You will receive your limited one time use discount code via email very soon.

This puzzled me. I am not a Dyson employee. I have never been a Dyson employee. I never will be a Dyson employee. Why would I need an employee discount code? Oh well, perhaps it was a bit of a work-around that they were using to allow people to claim their free Dok by pretending to be employees with a discount code. I sat back and waited for the promised email to arrive.

A week later, I was still waiting. I sent an email to Dyson enquiring about my Dok. The next day, having received no reply, I sent another email. After another day of email silence I gave up and rang Dyson directly where, after a lot of automated telephone tag, I finally got to speak to a real live person. I explained my problem, and told her about the puzzling employee discount code.

"That doesn’t make any sense," she said. "I’m sure that’s not supposed to happen. What is the serial number of your Dyson V11 Absolute?"

I told her, and I heard the sound of keyboard keys clicking.

"I have no record of that purchase," she said. "Are you in front of a computer at the moment?"

"Yes," I confessed.

"I’ll give you the address of the web page where you have to fill in your claim," she said.

I went to the indicated page. "That’s the same form I filled in last time," I said.

"Fill it in again," she said, "and tell me what happens."

I filled it in, uploaded the scan of my receipt and pressed the submit button. "It says those details have already been recorded," I said, "and it won’t let me submit them again."

She sighed deeply. "I wonder where the information is being stored," she mused. "It isn’t in any of the databases that I have access to. Never mind – give me your details over the phone and I’ll record it in my database now."

I gave her all the information she needed and I listened to the clatter of keys as she typed it in. "There," she said, "I’ve got all that. You should be getting an email soon confirming your warranty." No sooner had she finished speaking than a brand new email popped into my inbox – the first email I’d ever received from Dyson. I was thrilled.

"It’s arrived," I said.

"Good," she said. "Now I’ll see about getting your Dok sent out to you." More keys clattered. "There," she said. "That’s done. Please allow 60 days for delivery."

"60 days?" I said, appalled. "Why does it take that long?"

"I don’t know," she said. "I’m just quoting the terms and conditions of the free Dok agreement. Perhaps free things go to the back of the shipping queue. Things that bring us money always take priority. But with luck, you might get it sooner."

A week later, I got another email from Dyson. Two emails in a week! My cup runneth over! This one informed me that my Dok was ready to ship and I should receive it in another week or so.

Rather to my surprise, the Dok turned up on my doorstep a few days later. Astonishing! Even more astonishing, two days later Dyson sent me a second Dok, thus making assurance doubly sure. I wonder how many more they will send me?

There is no doubt that a Dyson V11 Absolute really, really sucks and that, of course, is a very good thing. There is equally no doubt that the design of the Dyson web site, the design of the back end databases it uses and Dyson’s general ability to communicate effectively with its customers also really, really sucks. At least this has the merit of consistency, but it has no other virtues that I can see.


Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of Time PanMacmillan
Mike Chen A Beginning At the End Mira Books
Victor Zugg A Ripple in Time Independent Publication
Stephen Leather The Runner Hodder & Stoughton
David Young Stasi Child twenty7
Louise Luna Two Girls Down Doubleday
Louise Luna The Janes Doubleday
     
Previous Contents