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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (anseris aequabis)

Jake Gets Goosed

It was just after 6.30am and Jake the Dog and I were walking along a quiet village road. To our left a patchwork quilt of farmers fields displayed various shades of green as the different crops absorbed and reflected the early morning sun. On our right, a row of houses blinked uneasily as they awoke to a new dawn. Jake trotted happily along, pausing every now and then to sniff at something completely invisible but irresistibly interesting. I glanced casually to my left as I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. "Well look at that," I said to Jake. "That’s not something you see every day!" Jake and I stopped to watch the show that the morning was putting on for our entertainment.

Across the road a goose had stuck her head out of a hedge and was looking carefully left and right, checking the road for traffic. But it was far too early for any cars to be out and about yet. Cars are lazy creatures. They like to stay curled up warm and snug in their garages of a morning. Reassured that all was safe, the goose strode out and crossed over the road to the other side, the side where Jake and I stood watching. "Come along, children," she called. "Follow me!"

Behind her, a long, geometrically straight line of seven goslings obediently followed their mother. Each gosling left an inch of careful space between itself and the gosling in front. Goose and goslings marched with military precision as they headed determinedly towards their destination.

When they were about half way across the road I heard another rustling in the hedge. An eighth gosling tumbled out into the road, falling over itself in its eagerness to catch up with the rest of the family. "Wait for me," it called as it shook off a coating of dust and dead leaves. "Don’t leave me behind!" It sneezed vigorously and then strode out firmly into the road.

The mother goose glanced irritably back at the line of goslings. "Hurry up Alvin," she called. "You’re destroying the precision of the line. You’ve left far too large a gap."

"But there was a patch of clover in the hedge," protested Alvin, "and that’s my favourite and I was so very hungry and..."

"Shut up, Alvin," snapped the goose. "Get back in line immediately. And clean yourself up. You’re filthy!"

* * * *

Stephen Baxter’s novel Ark is usually referred to as the sequel to his earlier novel Flood but that’s a rather misleading way to think about what’s going on here. The two books actually tell one complete story that was just far too long to publish in a single volume (each novel hovers around the 500 pages mark and the print is quite small). Quite honestly, I very much doubt that Ark would make any sense if you tried to read it as a stand alone story in its own right. It can only be read as a continuation of the story told in Flood.

The premise is very simple. The Earth’s oceans are rising and flooding the land. The flooding is not caused by climate change (though that is a contributing factor, just not much of one). It would be a minor spoiler to tell you the cause of the flooding, so let’s just take it as read that the seas are rising and, over a period of years, the land is slowly vanishing beneath the waters. There is a particularly poignant scene quite late in the story which describes the moment when the tip of Mount Everest, the very last bit of land still poking above the water, is finally engulfed and the whole of the planet is now covered with one enormous sea which continues to get deeper and deeper…

The story line follows the waning and waxing fortunes of several people as the waters rise over their homes. Through their eyes we see the destruction and ruin of once great cities and we experience vast storms, alterations to oceanic ecosystems and a brief, doomed attempt to stave off disaster by forming planned communities that quickly turn into dystopias.

Millions, then billions of people die, sometimes in horrible situations. Cities, countries, and eventually whole continents vanish. The rising waters are inexorable and the last of humanity is eventually forced to eke out a precarious living in floating communities of rafts scattered in semi-isolated pockets all over the enormous sea.

There are attempts to sidestep the problem – three arks are built in an effort to rescue the record of human civilization. One, known as Ark 3, is a bizarre replica of the ocean cruise liner Queen Mary. It is large enough to be a floating self sufficient city with its own ecology. It is briefly successful, but the ravages of time and the ravages of refugees desperate for a place on board the ship spell its eventual doom.

Another, Ark 1, is a spaceship that takes the last remnants of humanity out to the stars, hoping to find a new earth on which life can start again. Flood ends with a speculation. What, and where, is Ark 2?

Ark itself tells the story of the space ship Ark 1. Again, too much detail here would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, after many adventures, triumphs and tragedies two other earth like planets are found and settled and part of the original crew of the Ark eventually return to Earth where they are reunited with their friends and where they finally discover the nature of Ark 2.

But what about the relativistic effects of light-speed (or faster) travel to the stars, I hear you ask? Won’t so many years have passed on Earth that everyone will have died of old age before the ship returns? Well actually, no they won’t because Baxter introduces some rather far fetched physics that addresses this problem. If you are at all curious about how this might work, go hunting on the intertubes for information about the Alcubierre drive. If you find that you understand the physics, I’d love to have you explain it to me…

Flood / Ark is, in many ways, a very gloomy and downbeat story. It’s a catastrophe novel with no redeeming features whatsoever. Ultimately there is no way to survive this particular apocalypse. Everybody dies. Ark 1 does provide some small hope for the future, but it does nothing whatsoever for the present. And the story is doubly wrenching because I found myself growing to like the characters through whose eyes I saw the whole tragedy unfold and all of whom, of course, eventually died.

Flood / Ark is a tour de force, but it isn’t a bundle of laughs. I was miserable for days after I finished reading it, but I was also very, very impressed with the skill and the artistry with which Stephen Baxter put this very long and complicated story together.

The SF writer Ben Bova died recently. Usually when this happens I go and re-read an old favourite novel in memoriam. But in the end I decided not to do that this time. Partly that’s because Bova was so hugely prolific that I’ve never been able to keep up with his enormous output, and partly it’s because I really wasn’t all that enamoured with most of his books in the first place. His magnum opus is a huge series of novels known as the Grand Tour which describe adventures set on all the planets of the solar system. By and large I found these to be rather too melodramatic for my taste with paper thin characters that simply didn’t appeal to me. Though having said that, one of the grand tour novels was called, quite simply Mars and it was about the first landing on Mars and I thought it was simply wonderful. I really, really loved it. Perhaps I should re-read that as my in memoriam novel? But then I thought no, that wouldn’t be fair. There are so many Ben Bova novels that I’ve never read at all. Who knows what I might have been missing? I think I’ll read one of those instead. That’s a far more appropriate thing to do. So, with vague memories of Mars floating around inside my head, I decided to read Mars Inc a relatively recent novel (it was first published in 2013) about which I knew absolutely nothing at all except that I was sure that Mars would come into the story somewhere…

Let me say straight away that I absolutely loved it and I’m very, very glad that I chose to read it.

Art Thrasher is a rich man with a vision. He wants to send a ship to Mars and land people on the red planet to explore it and hopefully colonise it. He realises that this will be a phenomenally expensive project. There is no way that he will be able to afford to fund it himself – though he is a successful businessman he is barely a billionaire and he knows that he will need quite a lot of billions to make his plans work. To that end, he sets out to recruit as many billionaires to his cause as he can. If they can pool their funds perhaps the project might succeed…

The novel simply tells the story of Art Thrasher’s attempts to interest the rich and the powerful in his scheme and his management of the project as he takes it all the way from just a gleam in his eye to the point where the Mars ship leaves Earth orbit on its way to the red planet. And that’s where the novel ends. There is nothing in this book about the exploration of Mars itself. It’s all about the implementation of the project, the wheeling and dealing and the juggling of far too many balls for comfort as Art Thrasher tries to bring his scheme to fruition.

Despite the fact that Mars Inc is marketed as a science fiction novel (presumably because it was written by a science fiction novelist) it really isn’t a science fiction novel at all – almost everything described in the novel can be achieved by crossing today’s technology with a lot of money! The closest the novel gets to science fiction are a few vague speculations about the future of virtual reality. So if the book isn’t science fiction, what is it? The best I can come up with is to call it business fiction. I’m not sure there is such a genre, but even if there isn’t this novel still remains a perfect example of it. So there!

Why do I like the novel so much? Financial manipulation and project management are not generally regarded as hot topics for fiction – finance is dull and project managers are not quite as boring as accountants, but they come very close. So what kept me turning the pages so avidly?

The project itself of course is intrinsically interesting and sufficiently esoteric that when things go wrong (and quite a lot of things do go wrong) the solution to the problems can sometimes be jaw dropping. For example, Art Thasher wants to launch the components of his space craft from NASA’s Cape Canaveral facility (the components, each launched separately, will eventually be assembled into the Mars ship in low Earth orbit). Unfortunately his project falls foul of NASA’s internal bureaucracy to the extent that it becomes completely impractical for him to use the Cape Canaveral facilities. However, it occurs to him, there is another launch facility on the other side of the world that NASA has no control over whatsoever. Unfortunately it is currently mothballed and it hasn’t been used for years. Hmmm...

I also greatly enjoyed the way that Bova characterises the rich and powerful billionaires who come together to fund Art Thrasher’s project. He paints all his billionaire characters as misogynistic, sociopathic narcissists who are utterly and selfishly obsessed with turning money into more money. They see that as an end in itself. Altruism, fun, the abstract search for knowledge and even an honest effort to improve the lot of their fellow human beings are all words and concepts that simply don’t exist for these people. Again and again as Art Thrasher attempts to bring them on board his project they ask the question "What’s in it for me?" And that summarises their nature perfectly.

It seems to me that Bova has done a superb job of capturing and defining the real life nastiness and shallowness of many of the rich and powerful. In my professional life as an IT consultant I did some work for several of the people who have appeared on the New Zealand rich list. One and all, they perfectly fit the description I’ve just given of the characters in Ben Bova’s book. They were some of the nastiest people I’ve ever met, utterly self-centred, rude, arrogant, quick tempered, narrow minded and often surprisingly ignorant about the world around them. Some of them, I’ll swear had never read a book in their lives!

Out here in the real world, such people do sometimes get their comeuppances – one of the men I worked for is currently in jail, having been found guilty of some sort of financial irregularity that I don’t understand at all, and another is facing charges of having rather large amounts of child pornography stored on his computer. Perhaps he too will go to jail. As it is in real life, so too must it be in fiction (after all, one if the jobs of fiction is to hold up a mirror to real life) and some of the billionaires in Bova’s novel come to a well deserved sticky end as well.

My serendipitous choice of Mars Inc as my Ben Bova in memoriam novel turned out to be just perfect.

* * * *

The goosely procession continued on its way and soon they all arrived safely just a few metres up the road from where Jake and I stood watching them. The mother goose kept glancing over at us but clearly she thought we were too far away to be a threat. The goslings ignored us completely as they milled around their mother. "What do we do now mum?" they asked. "What’s so good about this side of the road?"

"Let’s get a bit closer," pleaded Jake. "I’d love sniff all those goslings. I bet they smell really yummy!" I always do what Jake tells me to do, so we walked up the road towards the goose family. The closer we got, the more agitated the mother goose became. "Gather round children," she said. "Get together in a group huddle so that each of you can protect the other." Obediently, the goslings huddled together and kept their heads down, though I couldn’t help noticing that Alvin kept raising his head to stare at us. Clearly he found us fascinating.

The mother goose began to limp awkwardly in a spiral that took her further and further away from where the goslings were huddling. "Oh no," she yelled, "I’ve got a broken wing and a broken leg. I can’t run and I can’t fly. Oh woe is me! I’m such easy prey. I deserve to be eaten for being so clumsy!"

Jake and I watched in fascination as she got close to the far side of the road from where she had first appeared. "How did she break her leg and her wing?" asked Jake, puzzled. "She didn’t fall over or anything. So how could she possibly be injured?"

"She isn’t injured," I explained. "It’s what mother birds do in order to protect their children. They pretend to be hurt so as to distract the predators. If she can get the predator to attack her it keeps her children safe. Of course, if the predator gets too close to her she’ll just fly away… After all, she has to keep herself safe as well so that she can continue to look after her young ones when the crisis is over."

"I see," said Jake. "Clearly she’s a very good mother. She’s doing everything absolutely right." He bent his head and took a gentle sniff at the gosling huddle. They didn’t react, apart from Alvin who stretched up and bumped his head gently against Jake’s nose.

"For goodness sake don’t pee on them," I implored him. He almost invariably peed on pretty much everything he sniffed. "Their mum wouldn’t like that at all!"

"They don’t smell very interesting," said Jake. "They don’t deserve a golden shower." He sounded disappointed. "Let’s leave them be and carry on walking."

"OK," I said and we carried on up the street, leaving the birds behind. Just before we turned the corner we glanced back and watched as the mother goose walked back to her goslings and rounded them all up for the return journey. This time even Alvin got straight into line. He looked a little subdued.

"You were right," said Jake. "There’s no sign of her having a broken leg or a broken wing any more."

"That’s the healing power of distance for you," I said. "It never fails."

* * * *

I’m no great fan of show business autobiographies. All too often they turn out to be little more than gushing praise for all the lovely people who helped the autobiographer up the ladder to success. There’s a certain amount of this in My Life, David Jason’s autobiography but it never gets too obtrusive and, on the other hand, he’s not at all afraid to make his dislike of some people quite plain…

One of David Jason’s earlier successes was a show on children’s television called Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was written by (and also starred) Eric Idle and Michael Palin. Also appearing on the show were the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and there were occasional contributions from (then completely unknown) Terry Gilliam. The show was a great success (I used to rush home from school so that I could get back in time to watch it) and Jason showed a definite aptitude for the absurdist comedy that it featured. Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Neil Innes (from the Bonzos) and Terry Gilliam went on to become part of the hugely successful Monty Python team. And David Jason, of course, did not.

He seems quite bitter about that lost opportunity even now, and he complains about how both Eric Idle and Michael Palin sidelined him and, with no consultation, simply presented him with a fait accompli, leaving him out in the cold. He seems to believe that they felt he wouldn’t fit in because he lacked the education that the others had. He was a working class lad and they were Cambridge university graduates. That’s probably nonsense – Eric Idle was a working class lad who just happened to be clever enough to win himself a place at Cambridge. But there is no doubt that much of the Python humour was ferociously intellectual (that was part of its charm) and it is certainly possible that David Jason might not have fitted in.

But we’ll never know, and the setback certainly did no harm to David Jason’s career. He went on to play a huge number of well loved and well remembered characters on television and he made a huge amount of money and gained a huge number of honours from doing so. Needless to say, he performed all his character parts brilliantly as well. I absolutely loathed Only Fools and Horses but nevertheless I have to admit that David Jason’s interpretation of Del Boy was magnificently acted. Then, of course, there was Granville in Open All Hours and Pa Larkin and Inspector Frost – he even managed a very creditable Rincewind in an adaption of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic. He was far to old for the part but somehow he managed to bring it off.

The charm of his autobiography rises from his anecdotes about the shows he was in and what went on behind the scenes. He’s particularly good with Ronnie Barker, his co-star in Open all Hours but he has a lot to say about the other shows as well, much of it very funny. If you can put the usual show business gushing to one side, there’s a lot to like about this book.

* * * *

"What I want to know," said Jake, "is why did the goose cross the road?"

"To get to the other side?" I suggested.

"That’s facile," said Jake. "I think Jane Austen got it right at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice when she wrote: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single goose, in possession of a good road, must be in want of a crossing."

"That’s one small step for a goose," I said, "one giant leap for poultry."

"That’s quite enough of that," said Jake firmly. "I think perhaps we ought to shut up now."

"You’re probably right," I said, and we walked on in silence.

Stephen Baxter Flood Gollancz
Stephen Baxter Ark Gollancz
Ben Bova Mars Inc .Baen
David Jason My Life Penguin
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