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

Living In A Kafka Novel

This year New Zealand changed the way it handles the collection of income tax from salaried employees. Previously we had to fill in an IR5 tax form every year. This was never a very onerous task and over the years the form became progressively simpler to complete, mainly because the tax authorities stopped allowing us to claim rebates for anything. Each year I dutifully filled it in, claimed for my income protection insurance policy (the only thing left to me to claim), calculated my tax and applied for a refund of several hundred dollars. It became an annual ritual.

One year my boss made a terrible error in her PAYE calculations and it turned out that I owed the tax people nearly $800. But apart from that single glitch, I generally got a refund or at the very least broke even.

But this year everything changed. There were no forms to fill in at all. The IRD insisted that their magnificent new computer system and new reporting guidelines for businesses meant that they would have enough information on file to process employees taxes internally. All we had to do was sit back and wait and the refunds would roll in automatically.

I should have known it wouldn’t be quite that simple…

Iain M. Banks is back with another Culture novel. Eight hundred and three years before the novel opens, the Culture had been involved in a war that culminated with the destruction of two stars at the Twin Novae Battle. Now the light from those supernovae is about to reach the Masaq’ orbital and the artificial intelligence that administers the orbital has commissioned a symphony to celebrate the occasion. The composer Ziller is a Chelgrian, and there is a certain irony in this, for the Chelgrians were on the other side in that long ago war. But Ziller is a refugee who has no time for Chelgrian society, and he is more than a little angry when a Chelgrian Ambassador arrives at Masaq’. Ostensibly the Ambassador is there to try to persuade Ziller to return home. However he has another, more secret purpose – so secret in fact that even he does not know what it is; the memories have been expunged. All he knows is that once he arrives at Masaq’ they will gradually return. And when they do, the Culture will suffer a massive blow from which it may never truly recover.

The novel weaves tantalisingly between the several viewpoint characters, investigating their past as well as their present in an attempt to explain the motives (and the psychology) of the protagonists. There is much interweaving and interplay as characters and incidents illuminate the underlying tensions and slowly we come to understand the grand design. The orbital’s AI oversees the interplay, often encouraging interactions that the protagonists themselves would rather avoid. Is the AI the puppet master it seems to be, or just another puppet whose strings are being pulled by fate? What are it’s motives? The answers to these questions will determine the fate of many millions.

It is very hard to place Banks’ Culture novels into a chronological order for he gives us very few clues. But I suspect that this one comes towards the end of the sequence. The Culture seems decedent, almost uncaring. Hedonism is more important than principle and art seems to take precedence over politics. There is a definite fin de siècle feeling as the characters throw parties all around the orbital. The resolution ties up all the loose ends very nicely indeed and there is an unexpected twist in the tale which also reinforces the feeling that the Culture (as a culture) is losing the plot. Something else may be taking over.

I’ve always preferred Banks’ mainstream novels to his SF, but Looking to Windward is starting to make me change my mind.

In Probability Moon, Nancy Kress returns to the world of her award winning story The Flowers of Aulit Prison. Humanity has expanded into space using Star Gates left behind long ago by a mysterious alien race. Most of the life forms they discover are humanoid and there is a theory that long ago the aliens seeded the planets from common stock. Mostly the races live fairly harmoniously, but one (perhaps not of humanoid stock) is very aggressive and there is open warfare across the stars.

One of the humanoid races is a society whose members always unanimously agree on the truth. Failure to agree leads to painful headaches and a feeling of not belonging. An expedition is sent to investigate the society. However, unknown to many of the members of the expedition, there is a secret, secondary mission involved. The social survey is merely a cover for a military mission to investigate one of the planet’s moons which seems to be an artificial satellite manufactured by the same race that built the star gates.

The novel explores the society of the humanoids and the mysterious technology of the ancient aliens. Links between them are revealed, but not before much heartache has been endured by all involved.

There are multiple points of view in the story, human and (slightly) non-human and as always Nancy Kress brings these to life magnificently. But the plot and its resolution are rather clichéd and ancient people like me who have read far more SF than is good for them will have no trouble at all guessing what it is all about. I found it all a little humdrum and while I enjoyed the strange society of the humanoids, I found several of the human protagonists so extremely irritating (and their actions so extremely stupid) that I can’t really claim to have enjoyed the book as a whole.

PS Publishing is a British small press publisher that specialises in small print runs of "collector’s items". Watching the Trees Grow is a 96 page novelette by Peter Hamilton with an introduction by Larry Niven. The book is autographed by both people and my copy is number 217 out of a total print run of 300. It was very expensive and was definitely not worth the money.

The production values on the book itself are rather shoddy. It abounds with printing errors (layout errors rather than typos). The story itself is a trite and extremely uninteresting detective tale. I was not impressed.

The tax year ended on March 31st. Round about the middle of June I received a document from the IRD which summarised my income to the end of the tax year. It was, I was gratified to note, completely accurate. They’d even included the $30 I earned from writing a book review for a local newspaper, and they had noted the $7.50 withholding tax deducted from the $30. Included in the same envelope was a small and simple form to fill in to claim any rebates I might be entitled to. I examined the form carefully. I could claim for donations to charity, and I could claim for childcare and domestic home help, but nowhere could I claim for income protection insurance. I rang the IRD and explained my position.

"Ah," they said. "Yes – income protection insurance. We didn’t think of that. Ummm. Ring back in August and ask for an assessment form."

"Why do I have to wait until August? And what’s an assessment form?"

"We won’t have the data fully processed until August. An assessment form is a sort of replacement IR5."

"But I thought we’d done away with IR5 forms this year?"

"Oh we have. Except for special cases."

So now I was a special case. I decided to follow the advice and ring back in August. Two months passed and August arrived. I rang the tax department and explained the position.

"Oh that’s easy," said the man. "Have you got your details to hand? I can do it now on my computer. You don’t have to fill in any forms at all. I can’t understand why they told you to do that. What’s your IRD number?"

I told him and he looked me up.

"Oh dear," he said. "Oh dearie, dearie me…"

Pathways to Elfland is a literary biography of Lord Dunsany. It examines his novels, stories, plays and poetry in great detail. Dunsany’s career began with some of the strangest and most beautiful stories ever written. Many were virtually plotless vignettes and yet they had an almost hypnotic fascination. He followed these with several novels. However he never really felt happy with the structure of the novel and some of them are quite weak (though many have their admirers even today). For a time he flirted with the theatre and many of his plays were performed in the West End and on Broadway. But they did not remain popular (Schweitzer’s analysis of the plays indicates that again Dunsany was having structural problems with the longer works) and are now largely forgotten. He returned to the short story, but this time, in contrast to his languid, poetic, often plotless early stories, he produced tight, humorous, satirical and cleverly plotted works many of which revolved around a series of preposterous traveller’s tales narrated in a gentleman’s club by a man called Jorkens. There were five collections of Jorken’s stories and together with the rather gruesome Little Tales of Smethers, these short stories from the latter half of his career remain as fresh and entertaining today as they were when they were first written.

Dunsany also wrote poetry and was quite proud of his skills as a poet. However his poems are almost uniformly dire and Schweitzer is quite dismissive of them. Paradoxically, Dunsany’s poetic skills manifested themselves best in his prose. The early stories have never been surpassed for their lyricism and evocative word pictures and those early stories will probably always be recognised as the best things he ever wrote. No writer likes to think that his earliest works are his best, but in Dunsany's case it is probably true. Certainly they are the only works from his (quite prolific) output that remain relatively easy to find. All the rest have vanished into time and dust.

Pathways to Elfland is a marvellous book about a marvellous writer and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Laurie King’s novels about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes go from strength to strength and the relationship between Holmes and his protégé grows steadily more fascinating. A Monstrous Regiment of Women examines the post-war suffrage movement. A Letter of Mary involves a manuscript that appears to be a letter from Mary Magdalene. The Moor is a kind of a sequel to The Hound of the Baskervilles and O Jerusalem involves a plot to break the British mandate in Palestine.

The books breathe new life into Sherlock Holmes. I honestly thought that attempts to write more stories in the Holmes canon were foredoomed to failure. Those I have read seemed either lacklustre or formulaic as they described what was often a caricature of the master. There has been a tendency to concentrate on superficialities (deductive prowess, cocaine) at the expense of the man himself. Laurie King makes none of these mistakes. Holmes is a well-rounded character, totally believable, and completely alive. Even Conan Doyle himself never managed to achieve as much as Laurie King has done. And Mary Russell, the narrator of the tales, is a perfect foil for Holmes. Watson was extremely dull. His only purpose was to act as a mirror, reflecting the brilliant light that was Holmes. In many ways he was a spear carrier, an obeyer of orders who could not be trusted in a leading role. Mary Russell is none of these things. She is Holmes’ intellectual equal (at times she is obviously his intellectual superior) and she takes a leading role in all their adventures. Without her input to the team, I’m sure that many of Holmes’ cases would not have ended well.

The strength of the books lies in the interplay between the two characters. Even O Jerusalem (which has a gossamer thin plot of little intrinsic interest) is utterly fascinating because of the nature of the special relationship between Russell and Holmes.

I have now read all the Russell / Holmes novels. I can only pray that Laurie King is currently working on many more.

"?" I asked the taxman. "What do you mean ‘Oh Dear’?"

"You received a payment of $30 which has $7.50 withholding tax on it."

"That’s right." I explained about the book review.

"Well because of that $30 payment and the fact that the tax was levied as a withholding tax, you are classified as a self employed person and therefore you have to fill out an IR3 form."

"But I’m not self employed," I said. "Look at my income assessment. All my umpteen thousand dollars of income last year came from my salary. Except for that $30."

"Sorry," said the man. "Those are the rules. You earned $30 last year as a self employed person. So you must fill in an IR3. I’ll arrange to have one sent to you. You can claim your income protection insurance on the IR3," he added enticingly.

The IR3 arrived towards the end of August. The accompanying small print informed me that IR3 forms must be filed by the 7th of July. It would appear that I was in trouble again…

An IR3 is a form of enormous complexity. Among many other things, it required me to estimate my self-employed income for the next twelve months and to pay provisional tax on that estimated income. The explanatory booklet that comes with the form lists all the dire penalties that will be applied to your shivering carcass if your estimated income (and hence your provisional tax) turns out to be significantly lower than the actuality. The penalties start with ritual disembowelling for a first offence and culminate with eternal damnation and a thousand lines for subsequent offences. I estimated my income at zero, thus making my provisional tax zero as well – there’s no way I’m going through this rigmarole again next year. If the newspaper wants another book review, they can write it themselves!

Several other questions required me to provide details of various arcane financial items of which I had never heard and whose detailed explanations in the accompanying booklet might as well have been written in Martian for all the sense they made. On the theory that I’d never heard of them and therefore probably didn’t have them, I filled in zero for all of these as well.

Then came the great moment. I wrote down my claim for my income protection insurance. To this I added zero a few times (strangely, the total remained unchanged) and then for good measure I subtracted zero a few times as well. This too had surprisingly little effect on the final amount. I multiplied the figure by a magic number supplied by the IRD and the result suggested that they owed me a rebate of $1,755.17. Gleefully I posted my form and sat back and waited for the money to appear.

Nothing happened. I waited a little longer and it happened again. So I rang the IRD again…

The plots of Tom Clancy’s recent novels are easily summarised. Jack Ryan becomes President of the United States. The bad guys concoct a dastardly plan. Things happen. War breaks out and the Americans and their allies have a jolly spiffing time with lots of minutely described high-tech weaponry. The bad guys lose. The end.

The Bear and the Dragon follows this outline quite closely. It only varies from the norm in that despite being 1028 pages long, virtually nothing happens in between Ryan becoming President and war breaking out except for a bungled assassination attempt on the Russian chairman of the SVR (formerly the KGB). There are a lot of interminable conversations, a little bit of unimaginative sex and a huge amount of extreme tedium.

There are, however, moments of unintentional humour. Clancy’s utterly inept attempts to describe computers will amuse the geeks among us. His characters are constantly "lighting up" programs. (I kept picturing somebody sticking a CD in their mouth and applying a match). A computer salesperson selling the latest high-tech gear to the Chinese government talks about the incredible "pin matrix" printer his company has for sale. This same salesperson (who is really a CIA agent) persuades a government clerk to install some special software in a ministerial computer. This software contains "six lines of binary code" that gather up all the "graphic-text files" on the disk and send them off to CIA headquarters. The files are "memory intensive" so this takes a long time. The program is so cleverly written that only a "one-by-zero reading of the program itself" would enable someone to determine what it did.

Clancy has a reputation as a writer with an incredible grasp of high technology – particularly its use in weapons of war. However his absurd attempts to describe how computers work and what they do make me wonder if the rest of his so-called expertise is at the same abysmal level. I start to suspect that this emperor has no clothes.

Like all American technocrats, Clancy has a deep and abiding love of acronyms and code names. When Jack Ryan, the President of the United States, talks to his wife (the First Lady), the conversation generally goes like this:

"Blah, blah, blah," said POTUS to FLOTUS.

"Blah, blah," replied his wife.

"Blah, blah, blah, blah," said SWORDSMAN.

The effect is ridiculous, and not at all (I assume) what Clancy was trying to achieve. The whole book is a complete mess – full of pointless conversations, dull lectures, tiresome characters and dirty old Chinese men. Don’t touch it with a bargepole, not even somebody else’s bargepole that you borrowed for the occasion. It simply isn’t worth it.

In 1990, a revised edition of the classic Robert Heinlein novel The Puppet Masters was issued. It seems that all previous editions had been quite heavily cut and the new edition restored the original story. All subsequent printings have been of the revised version. I only recently discovered this fact. The Puppet Masters has long been one of my favourite Heinlein novels and I was eager to see what the new version was like.

Slug like aliens are taking over the world. They plug themselves directly into the human nervous system and take over control of their hosts. Sam Cavanaugh is an intelligence officer closely involved in the fight against the alien invasion. It is a trite story, but it is beautifully told. All the great Heinlein mannerisms are here. It wasn’t long after this that these same mannerisms dissolved into self-indulgence in the rambling novels of his later period. Indeed, there are traces of these attitudes in this book as well, but they are not quite overt enough to be annoying.

In all honesty, the new version wasn’t very much different from the old one. I compared the two quite closely, and the new one had a few trivial expansions of the prose and a few new incidents involving new minor characters, but there were no major changes, no significant new details, no new insights. If you have never read the novel, I recommend it highly. But those of you who already have it in your collection have no real need to own the new edition.

When you call the IRD the phone rings forever. Eventually a robot voice informs you that you are in a priority queue, your call is very important, and if you will just hang on, someone will deal with you very soon. A recent newspaper report suggests that the vast majority of callers ring off before anyone answers them. However a phone call is much better than a letter. I know from personal experience that the tax department NEVER, EVER under any circumstances answers letters or even acknowledges their receipt. So I waited in the priority queue for nearly three hours before a human voice finally said, "Hello?"

I explained.

"Ah yes, here’s your file. Hmmmm. There’s a fault on it. We can’t pay you until I authorise it by typing an incantation."

"Why is that?"

"Oh we don’t agree with your calculation. You got the figures in Question 11 wrong, so we only owe you $716.79"

"Well if I got it wrong, but you KNOW that I got it wrong because you know what the right answer is, why don’t you just correct the figures automatically and send me the $716.79?"

"No we can’t do that. We have to wait until you contact us, and then we’ll explain and then we can authorise it."

"But you never acknowledge letters and contacting you on the phone is almost impossible, so if I gave up because I couldn’t get through, does it mean that you’d never pay me the money you owe me? You’d keep it forever, just because I got a figure wrong in Question 11?"

"Yes, that’s right." He sounded smug.

"But if you refuse to pay me money that you owe me, isn’t that theft? After all if I refused to pay you money that I owe you, you’d have me in court in two shakes of an accountant’s quill."

"That’s different."

"Oh, of course. I should have realised. Now – what’s Question 11?"

"That’s the one where you have to calculate your ACC contributions as a percentage of your overall income. You estimated your ACC contributions as zero, and that’s not right."

"But surely my employer paid the ACC contributions during the PAYE year?"

"Oh yes, but we discounted those payments because you are self employed so you have to calculate the payments yourself and then we credit your calculations against the money we received as ACC contributions from your employer."

"But I’m not self employed!"

"Yes you are. You filled in an IR3."

"Only because of a $30 payment I received as a freelance."

"Yes, that’s right – you are self employed outside your regular employment."

It seemed that we were no further forward. I let my mind boggle for a while at the silliness of it.

"Well – can you authorise the payment anyway?" I asked hopefully.

"Oh yes, that’s easy. Now that we’ve discussed it."

There was a pause and I heard the clatter of keys on a keyboard.

"There, that’s done," he said. "You should receive your rebate in about five days."

He was spot on. Five days later I received my $716.79.

Graham Joyce is a writer I have grown to admire tremendously in recent months. Indigo reaffirms that admiration in spades. Jack Chambers has been estranged from his father for almost all his life apart from a couple of rather embarrassing semi-reconciliations in his late teens. Now his father is dead and Jack has been named executor of the will. The task of carrying out his father’s rather odd last wishes teaches Jack rather more than he wants to know about that twisted, repellent and highly eccentric man.

The father is revealed to be a strange amalgam of Aleister Crowley and Andy Warhol. He is very concerned with Art (albeit rather odd art) and at the same time is pursuing occult studies that lead him to promote a philosophy similar to Crowley’s "Do what thou want shall be the whole of the law!". Almost against his will, Jack is drawn into that world as he meets some of the emotionally crippled people that his father used and discarded. He experiments with the formula for invisibility that his father described in an occult book. He endeavours to see indigo. Perhaps he succeeds.

The novel is chilling. On the one hand it is a study of psychopathy; on the other it is a love story. It is compulsive, riveting reading.

Paul J. McAuley has written a trilogy. Nothing odd about that these days. Normally I avoid trilogies – particularly when, as in this case, only the first two of the books are available, but this trilogy came encumbered with such a weight of enthusiastic critical acclaim that I succumbed. (The third book has just been published in paperback in England and is currently winging its way towards me in a big silver bird. I’ll report on the story’s conclusion next month).

Child of the River (The First Book of Confluence) opens as the child Yamamanama is found on the breast of a dead woman in a white boat floating on the Great River. He is adopted by the Aedile of Aeolis and seems destined for a minor post in the theocratic bureaucracy that rules Confluence. But Yama’s ambition is to become a soldier and fight against the heretics. He also wants to solve the mystery of his birth and to find his bloodline – all the other races of Confluence have characteristic, well recognised bloodlines (and often genetically inescapable fates as well). But Yama belongs to no known race.

The first book follows a fairly characteristic fantasy quest plot in terms of its action, but it soon becomes apparent that Confluence is more than just a typical fantasy world. There are machines here, machines that Yama can control, though other people cannot. And there are strong hints in the sacred verses of the Puranas that a race known as the Preservers caused Confluence to be constructed before they themselves passed over into transcendence as they locked themselves away from the universe inside a black hole. Once a starship travelling at relativistic velocities visited Confluence. It’s crew (known as the Ancients of Days because, from their point of view, so much time had passed in the external universe) were humans from whom the Preservers were descended. We start to get an impression of vast gulfs of time and a completely altered universe and the story takes on a whole new perspective while still remaining (in its details) a classical fantasy quest.

Ancients of Days (The Second Book of Confluence), continues to pursue these themes. Yama has now found that his bloodline has long been considered extinct and the mystery of his birth deepens. He is being pursued by agents of one of the theocratic departments and has taken up arms as a mercenary. His power over the machines has grown and he has learned more about the past of Confluence. He has made contact with an avatar of one of the Ancients of Days and is perturbed to find her less idealistic than he had supposed. He rebels against her influence.

This book also follows a well known and well loved plot – the hero running from implacable danger finds unsuspected allies along the way (as well as unsuspected enemies – sometimes the two are the same). It is an Odyssey, or perhaps a Huckleberiad and the long journey down the Great River and the odd adventures Yama and his companions find there has definite resonances with Mark Twain’s classic book.

The mood and to a certain extent the tone of these books reminds me of Jack Vance crossed with Gene Wolfe. Now there’s an odd mixture. Yama’s world is as far from us in time and space and as complex, deeply layered and meaningful as the world of Severian the Torturer in Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. McAuley plays many of the same intellectual games as Wolfe (though in my opinion he is rather more approachable; Wolfe has a distressing tendency towards the gnomic). The complex of races and their strange habits are as quirky and delightful and intriguing as any created by Vance and the combination has an eerie fascination. McAuley’s Confluence trilogy bids fair to be one of the great works and I am eagerly awaiting the third book. I can’t wait to see how it ends, and I want the mysteries explained. Not least of which is the identity of the dead woman from whose breast Yama was rescued.

Now just think about my taxing tale for a minute. For the sake of a $30 payment which attracted $7.50 withholding tax, the IRD held three quite lengthy telephone calls with me and made me fill in a very complicated form. A clerk processed that very complicated form and transferred its figures to my records in the IRD computer, correcting my invalid Question 11 along the way. The collection of the $7.50 tax probably cost them several hundred dollars in administration alone. Let’s assume they spent $300 to collect my $7.50 tax. That’s a cost of $40 per tax dollar collected. This is not a productive ratio. If the same ratio applies to a significant fraction of this year’s PAYE taxpayers (and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that it does) then the IRD must have made a significant loss this year. No wonder this country has debts that are slowly grinding it into oblivion. New Zealand must be the only country in the world whose tax department consistently fails to make a profit!

Iain M. Banks Looking to Windward Orbit
Nancy Kress Probability Moon Tor
Peter F. Hamilton Watching Trees Grow PS Publishing
Darrell Schweitzer Pathways to Elfland Owlswick Press
Laurie R. King A Monstrous Regiment of Women Harper Collins
Laurie R. King A Letter of Mary Bantam
Laurie R. King The Moor Bantam
Laurie R. King O Jerusalem Bantam
Tom Clancy The Bear and the Dragon Michael Joseph
Robert A. Heinlein The Puppet Masters Del Rey
Graham Joyce Indigo Penguin
Paul J. Macauley Child of the River Vista
Paul J. Macauley Ancients of Days Millennium

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