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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (praematurus)

Early Warning Systems

If I have a fault (which I do not) it is that I am always early for appointments.

It all began on the day that I was born. I was four weeks premature, and the psychological scars that circumstance gave me remain unhealed even today.

As a child I attended a small primary school at the other end of the village. It rejoiced in the name Withinfields County Junior Mixed, but to us it was just school. Because many of the children lived in the village, we mostly went home for lunch. Those of us who lived at the far end of the village (as I did) had a special dispensation to catch an early bus at 12 noon (the next one left at 12.15 and it was generally agreed that it was too late to get us home, fed, and back to school by 1.00pm). However it was not unknown for the teacher to get so carried away by whatever she was teaching that she lost track of time, and so we would sometimes miss the bus. I hated it when that happened.

One day, feeling hungry, and feeling anxious about missing the vital bus I raised my hand.

"Please can I go and catch the 12-o-clock bus now?"

The other children in the class began to snigger, but I ignored them. I had a bus to catch.

The teacher looked puzzled. "But it’s only 11.30," she said. "The bus doesn’t come for another half an hour."

"I can wait at the bus stop," I said.

The whole class erupted into hysterics at this remark. Even the teacher appeared to be having a hard time controlling her giggles. "No, Alan," she remarked patiently, "I don’t think that’s a good idea."

I subsided, but remained bewildered. I simply couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go and wait for the bus and I had no idea why the rest of the children were laughing so hard at me. It all made perfect sense from my point of view.

As I look back on the incident forty years later, I still fail to understand the attitude of the teacher and the other children. My request to go and wait for the bus still makes perfect sense to me (though others appear not to agree). I felt then and I feel now that you should always be early for everything in life. After all, when you are early, you can wait. When you are very early you can read a book while waiting (an advantage in itself). When you are late you are in the poo and the situation simply cannot be rescued. Surely this is self evident?

Apparently not.

Walk in Hell, and Breakthroughs are two more instalments of Harry Turtledove’s ongoing history of an alternate World War One which takes place on the American continent. Episodic, with a vast number of characters, the books really do paint on an enormous canvas. They held me enthralled from the first page. Indeed, I bought Breakthroughs in hardback as soon as it appeared. I simply couldn’t bear to wait another year for the paperback. That’s how good these books are.

By now the war has settled down into a war of attrition. Networks of trenches cross the battlefields and advances are measured in yards not miles. Huge land ironclads (known as barrels in this history, though we called them tanks in ours) are giving a limited success in battle. However official doctrine requires that they be spread thinly across the front and used only in support of infantry advances. General Custer thinks this a foolish idea and amasses a large force of barrels which he uses to spearhead a drive through the confederate lines. It succeeds beyond his wildest dreams and for the first time the stalemate of the trenches is broken. To their credit, the general staff soon realise that the original doctrine for deploying the barrels was flawed and it isn’t long before the confederate lines are pierced all along the front. US troops advance in triumph, the confederacy is broken and the war ends in 1917.

The parallels with our own Great War are fascinating. We used the same spread out deployment of tanks and as a result their success was limited. There was only one really decisive tank battle, at Cambrai where the allied troops really did break through "…to the green fields beyond". However the success of the breakthrough took everybody by surprise and there were no troops in reserve to take advantage of it. The Germans managed to regroup and counter attack and the status quo of stalemate was soon re-established. In our universe the war dragged on until late in 1918. Turtledove’s books ask a heart-breaking "what if" question (as does all the very best SF). How much needless slaughter could we have avoided if we’d learned the lesson of Cambrai? We’ll never know for sure.

With Down to Earth Turtledove returns to his other major alternate history series where the Earth was invaded by aliens during World War Two. The series is six books old now and if you have read the others then you know how brilliant it is and you will race out eagerly to buy this instalment. If you haven’t read the earlier books, go out and do so IMMEDIATELY, and then read this sixth book.

Talking about ongoing series that are umpteen books old, Callahan’s Key is the latest novel by the pun gent Spider Robinson. It is the mixture as before. As always, I failed to understand at least half the puns (I suspect the references are far too American and they just pass me by) but there were sufficient left over to make me groan. If you like the Callahan stories you’ll love this, if you don’t, you won’t.

I’ve given up on Tom Holt. His latest so-called humorous fantasy novel Valhalla is just the pits. Attila the Hun is trapped in the afterlife, condemned to spend eternity watching paint dry. He escapes and is reincarnated as a child on Earth. He meets a reincarnated Joan of Arc who is still hearing voices in her head. They turn out to be television commercials exhorting her to buy Fairy Liquid. She has thousands of gallons of the stuff buried in pits all over the country just waiting for the day the voices tell her what to do with it. Meanwhile…

Oh I can’t go on. I’ve told you the only good jokes in the entire book, so now you don’t have to read it. Believe me, it is dire.

If you want something truly funny, read the cartoons by Illiad. User Friendly is a cartoon series by a geek and is mainly for geeks to read. Prior to these books being published, you could only read it on the web (quite appropriate for geeks, of course). Now we can all read it, and if you have even a nodding acquaintance with computers, then these books are for you. You will recognise all the stereotypes that inhabit the IT department in your organisation and find out what makes them tick. If you are a geek yourself, I defy you not to find yourself in here. The essence of successful satire is a deep knowledge of (and sometimes love of) the subject being satirised. Illiad is a truly great satirist and these are rib-tickling, rib-breaking cartoons, shot through with dark humour, cynicism, wit and wisdom.

I spent my honeymoon in Fiji. I lived in Wellington at the time and the honeymoon therefore involved a trip on the overnight train to Auckland, from where we would catch the plane to Fiji. As the afternoon progressed, I became steadily more nervous.

"Shall I call the taxi?"

"Not yet." My wife shook her head. "The train doesn’t go for ages."

My stomach began to knot with tension. There was only one train. If we missed it we wouldn’t get a second chance. The honeymoon would be over before it began. I made a cup of coffee. I plucked a book at random from the shelves and opened it. It was upside down, but I didn’t notice immediately.

"Can I call the taxi now?"


I tried to read my book, but the words made no sense.


"Oh all right. If you really must. But it’s cold and draughty on that station platform. We’ve got plenty of time, you know."

I rang the taxi and we waited for it to come. And waited. And waited some more. I rang the taxi company again. "He’s on his way…"

We waited.

I rang again. "He won’t be long…"

We waited.

The taxi arrived an hour and a half after I’d first rung. The driver ambled into town at least 10kph below the speed limit. I could have walked faster. My palms were clammy with nervous sweat and excess hydrochloric acid production in my stomach was eating holes in my feet. Geological aeons later we finally arrived at the station and got on the train.

Thirty seconds after we boarded, it pulled away from the platform on its long journey to Auckland.

"See? I told you we had plenty of time!"

It was our first and fiercest marital disagreement.

I read very few short stories these days. Collections and anthologies are few and far between and I seldom see the magazines. However I never miss Gardner Dozois’ annual anthology for it is definitive. He always chooses from strength, and this year his choices are especially strong. I particularly enjoyed the new Heechee story from Frederik Pohl and the new instalment of the Company tales from Kage Baker. But really it is hard to single out individuals – all the stories are good ones.

I think Kim Newman is one of my favourite authors. His stories dig deep into the collective psyche of English youth (Biggles, Dracula, many hours spent alone in dark cinemas watching second rate films, Sherlock Holmes, comic books, crap television serials, the great days of Empire). It is a heady mix and his stories are rife with nostalgia as well as being completely up to date in terms of theme and character and plot. Deuced skilful!

Unforgivable Stories is a collection of arcana in which we find the real truth of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, what happens when zombies invade Russia, what Dracula did as a tourist, and what happens in the wild, wild west of Bristol, where there is no law but the gun and the iron horse. The stories are odd, surreal, and yet firmly grounded in reality. But what they mostly are is great fun.

The current furore over J. K Rowling has raised a lot of interest in the whole area of children’s fiction, something which often passes many of us by. Several people whose taste I trust have recommended the novels of Philip Pullman to me, so I determined to investigate. Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife are the first two novels of a trilogy. The third novel is due out towards the end of this year.

Northern Lights is set in a world similar to but different from our own. It tells the story of Lyra who lives at the university in Oxford. One day she hides in a cupboard and overhears a meeting between her Uncle and many influential men in the college. Trouble is stirring in the far frozen north of the world.

Meanwhile, throughout England, children are vanishing. Lyra’s friend Roger is one of the victims and her quest to find out what has happened to him, combined with the secret knowledge she overheard in the meeting lead her to a secret encampment in the ice where horrific experiments are taking place.

The second novel, The Subtle Knife, opens in our own world. Will is twelve years old and has just killed a man. Now he is on the run. He discovers a window into another world where he meets Lyra, still following the quest she began in the first novel. This world is strange to both of them and as they probe its mysteries it proves to be very dangerous, Soul eating spectres haunt the cities and towns and high in the sky flocks of angels follow their own mysterious purposes.

These books are sold as children’s books, but I’m not convinced that they are. They deal with frightening concepts, terrifying ideas. There are no heroes and villains, no black and white, only an enormous spectrum of grey. Moral choices must be made and the choosers are fallible and their motives are mixed. The depth of the ideas that the books explore is immense. Both ethical and scientific thoughts are exposed in all their glory and subtlety and absolutely no allowance at all is made for the fact that many of the concepts are likely to be way over the heads of the target audience. I think it would be much fairer to describe these as books for adults that happen to have children as protagonists.

They are extremely powerful and moving books, beautifully written and immaculately plotted. My only cavil is that towards the end of the second volume an explicitly Christian theme emerges and overt religious parallels are drawn. If the third book turns into a tract and Philip Pullman is revealed as C. S. Lewis in a skin, I for one will be very disappointed.

Wild Angel is Pat Murphy’s Tarzan novel. It is set in nineteenth century California. Sarah McKensie is three years old. Her parents are murdered and she is adopted by wolves. She grows up in the wilderness, a perfect young savage. But she is not completely without human contact. Max Phillips (who found her parents’ bodies all those years ago) has never given up searching for the child. Eventually he finds her and builds up a friendship with her. Over the years she rescues several people from the dangers of the wilderness, and the legend of the wild angel spreads. When Professor Serunca’s Travelling Circus arrives with Rosy the Elephant, events come to a head and Sarah finally confronts the murderer of her parents.

It’s a wonderful tale which will bring out the child in you all. I read all the Tarzan books when I was young (and so did you and so did Pat Murphy and so did Gore Vidal; we’re in excellent company) and this is a straight down the middle of the road genre adventure tale. Magnificent stuff!

Stephen Brust made his reputation with his Taltos stories, but before these there was To Reign in Hell which has now been republished and is available again for the first time in years. It tells the tale of the revolt of the angels in heaven (and it also tells the tale of the founding of heaven). It is an ambitious novel – probably far too ambitious for I feel that ultimately it fails. The grand theme becomes trite when stretched to this length and omnipotence and omniscience are not all they are cracked up to be. He grafts all too human vices and virtues on to the heavenly host and it demeans them.

The habit of being early has carried over into my working life. I commute between Auckland and Wellington at regular intervals. In order to make life more pleasant I carry a card which allows me entry to lounges of unbridled luxury wherein free food and drink is poured into my unresisting body and dusky maidens indulge my every whim. Thus I have even more motive than usual for arriving early and so I do. But sometimes I turn up excessively early even by my standards.

"Hello. I’ve got an electronic ticket for the 4.30pm flight to Wellington."

"Hello sir," said the helpful lady at the check in desk. "Would you like me transfer you to the previous flight? It will be boarding in about an hour."

"No thank you. I’ll stick with the 4.30 flight please."

She checked me in with a puzzled look and a muffled giggle, and as I made my way to the lounge she made spot-the-loony faces to her colleague on the next desk.

Robert A. Heinlein – A Reader’s Companion lists all of Heinlein’s stories and novels together with brief notes putting the work into context and discussing any relevant details that spring to the author’s mind. It is a little bit of a grab bag of goodies. There is not much here that is new to the Heinlein aficionado, though one little snippet did intrigue me. It seems that the early novel The Puppet Masters was reissued in 1990 in a considerably expanded form. Apparently the original manuscript was heavily cut for the first publication. Gifford contends that the complete version makes the tale much stronger, and rates it as one of Heinlein’s best. Since I have very fond memories of the original novel (it was always one of my favourites) I immediately raced off to and ordered a copy. I’ll be interested to compare the two versions…

The book is not a critical discussion of Heinlein and neither is it a bibliography, but it succeeds in the task it has set itself, and who could ask for more than that?

Voodoo Science concerns itself with the fringe areas where science turns into mysticism, public relations and sometimes fraud. The Pons and Fleischman debacle over cold fusion, for example, and various attempts to overturn the second law of thermodynamics, and to cure cancer through the application of quantum theory. The book is at one and the same time exhilarating and sad. Exhilarating because of the enormous gusto with which Robert Park explains and debunks the pseudoscience, and sad because he found it necessary to do so.

He Shall Thunder in the Sky is the latest instalment in Elizabeth Peters’ history of the Emersons. Amelia Peabody and her archaeologist husband, her son Ramses and her adopted daughter Nefret become deeply involved in events in Egypt at the opening of the first world war. Ramses has expressed profoundly pacifist views and has been presented with several white feathers as a result. There is a coldness between him and Nefret which was caused by the machinations of their dastardly cousin Percy.

Turkish troops are massing by the Suez canal and an invasion seems imminent. The nationalist guerrilla leader El Wardani is fomenting revolution and when he escapes from a police trap thanks to the intervention of Amelia and her husband, the whole family is placed in a precarious position. This worsens when Amelia becomes convinced that the chaos in Cairo makes an ideal opportunity for Sethos the Master Criminal to plunder the archaeological treasures of Egypt.

Ramses, it would seem, is playing a dangerous game of his own and the tension mounts as Amelia, Ramses, Nefret, Sethos, El Wardani and Percy circle around each other. Intrigue piles upon intrigue, plot upon plot and the denouement that unravels all these tangles threads is eminently satisfying. This is one of Elizabeth Peters’ best books, and the revelations cast an interesting light over many of the previous books in the series. Motives and incidents and people that you thought you understood prove to have hidden depths. Nobody and nothing is quite what it seems to be on the surface.

Just when you thought the Sherlock Holmes genre was dead, stifled in repetitive minutiae, stuck in a rut, someone comes along to refresh it and finds a whole new way of looking at Sherlockiana. The beekeeper of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is, of course, Sherlock himself and his apprentice is Mary Russell a fifteen year old orphan living with her aunt on the Sussex downs. Out walking one day in 1915, she literally bumps into Sherlock and from that inauspicious beginning a strange friendship develops. For Mary is at least Sherlock’s intellectual equal (and perhaps surpasses him in some areas).

Under Holmes’ tutoring, Mary sharpens her deductive reasoning and hones her talent for disguise. It isn’t long before she is helping him with his cases, first as an apprentice, but later on as a complete partner. Soon the two sleuths are involved in a dangerous game for it seems that perhaps a new Moriarty has arisen, a new Napoleon of crime. Does Holmes’ nemesis rise again in every generation?

The novel is by turns funny, touching and scary. The interplay of character between Holmes and Mary is fascinating and the growth of Mary’s character as she reaches maturity is superbly handled. It is an episodic novel (though some of the episodes are more closely connected than you might at first think), and I found it to be utterly irresistible. There are four sequels; I can’t wait to read them.

Laurie R. King is an American writer. As is so often the case when Americans write about British things, she makes the occasional error – nothing that gets in the way of the plot, but errors nonetheless. My favourite is a scene where a character grumbles that he has been short changed by a shilling. So he is given 3 pennies, a ha’penny and six farthings. Now if you do the arithmetic, that adds up to 5 pence (5d) which is a whole 7d short of a shilling! However in modern (post decimal) British currency, 5 pence (new pence – 5p as opposed to 5d) DOES equal a shilling. It seems obvious from this that the writer has confused the currency of 1915 with modern decimal currency and has become utterly bewildered by the whole thing. I was actually quite happy to see this. British currency has always been expressly designed to confuse Americans and even though the currency has now gone decimal, I am pleased to see that it still fulfils its traditional function!

Sometimes the effects of being early rebound upon me. Recently I concluded my business in Wellington by lunchtime and so I made my way out to the airport intent on catching the first flight home.

"Hello. I’m booked on the 6.30pm flight to Auckland. Is there any chance of rebooking me on to an earlier flight?"

"Let me see." The lady did arcane things with her computer terminal. "Yes that’s fine sir." She handed me a boarding pass for the 1.30pm flight. I had about half an hour to wait. Just enough time for an interlude of orgasmic delight. I made my way to the luxury lounge and rang home then I rang the taxi company and arranged to be met at Auckland airport at 2.30pm. I settled down to pour vile fluids into and out of my body. Then an announcement came over the speaker system.

"We regret that flight 726 to Auckland has been delayed. We expect to make a boarding call at approximately 1.45. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause."

Oh well, it was only a quarter of an hour delay. I placed an order for another batch of dusky maidens. Then they delayed the flight again by another fifteen minutes. Cursing, I rang home and after that I rang the taxi company again to warn them about the delay. I called for caviar, champagne, fresh monkey brains still warm in the skull, and a clean spoon.

"We regret to announce that flight 726, the 1.30pm flight to Auckland is now scheduled for departure at 3.30pm. Could any passengers in the lounge who wish to transfer to the 3.00pm flight please come to the reception desk."

I got there first, and changed my ticket yet again. I rang home, rang the taxi company (who were sick of my voice by now) and drank a bottle of Chateau D’Yquem and ate quail eggs in aspic. Then I called for a cask of Amontillado, and muttering "For the love of God, Montresor," I staggered to my plane as the boarding call was made. When I passed the departures display screen, I noticed that my original 1.30pm flight had now been completely cancelled.

I sat myself in seat 17G and stared gloomily out of the window. It was almost 3.00pm. Had I caught the early plane I’d originally planned for, I’d have been home by now. Time passed.

"Sorry for the delay in taking off," came the pilot’s voice over the tannoy. "We’re just doing the final paperwork and then we’ll be taxiing to our take-off position."

Ten minutes later we pulled away from the airbridge and trundled slowly towards the runway. Then we stopped, engines idling. The pilot spoke again.

"Sorry ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, but Air Traffic Control have requested a small delay. It shouldn’t be too much longer…"

We finally took off nearly 45 minutes late and we must have had an uphill wind because we didn’t make up any time at all on the journey to Auckland. We were so late arriving that all the airport gates were already occupied by well-disciplined aircraft that were sticking rigidly to their schedules, and so we taxied to an obscure corner of the airport, disembarked via the portable stairs and then walked for miles towards the dimly visible airport buildings on the horizon. There we walked through a maze of little twisty passages, all alike, with strategically placed airport staff to indicate the correct route when the choices got too confusing. Eventually I emerged through a door I’d never noticed before to find myself immediately behind my taxi driver who was staring hopefully at the stairs down which travellers from Wellington usually appeared.

"Hello," I said.

He jumped in shock. "Oh, hello sir."

We collected my bags and set off for the taxi. "Where to sir?"

I gave him my address.

"Where’s that, sir?" I could tell that I was having one of those days and it wasn’t over yet. I gave him directions to my house, he nodded thoughtfully, and we set off into the slowest moving traffic jam I’ve ever seen.

"Sorry about this sir…" By now it was a familiar refrain.

I eventually arrived home only about two hours before I would have done had I caught my original 6.30pm flight. Sometimes the excessively early bird gets the worm with the hangover from last night’s party.

Harry Turtledove The Great War: Walk in Hell Del Rey
Harry Turtledove The Great War: Breakthroughs Del Rey
Harry Turtledove Colonization: Down to Earth Del Rey
Spider Robinson Callahan’s Key Bantam
Tom Holt Valhalla Orbit
Illiad User Friendly O’Reilly and Associates
Illiad Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell O’Reilly and Associates
Garner Dozois (Editor) The Year’s Best Science Fiction 17th Annual Collection St. Martins
Kim Newman Unforgivable Stories Pocket Books
Philip Pullman Northern Lights Scholastic
Phillip Pullman The Subtle Knife Scholastic
Pat Murphy Wild Angel Tor
Steven Brust To Reign in Hell Orb
James Gifford Robert A. Heinlein – A Reader’s Companion Nitrosyncretic Press
Robert Park Voodoo Science Oxford University Press
Elizabeth Peters He Shall Thunder in the Sky Morrow
Laurie R. King The Beekeeper’s Apprentice Bantam

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