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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (beelzebub maximus)

Lord of the Flies

"There’s an awful lot of flies in the house this year," said Robin doing a rather ineffectual Australian wave in a vain attempt to shoo the flies away. She hasn’t lived in Australia for a great many years and so she’s rather out of practice.

"Yes," I agreed, "there do seem to be rather more than we usually get. I think there’s at least a couple of dozen of them in the kitchen, though it’s hard to be sure of the exact number because they keep zooming around. I’ve never seen flies fly so fast before. So to speak."

"Where’s the fly swatter?" asked Robin. "We need to take drastic action."

"We’ve got a green one and a red one," I said. "But I don’t know where the red one is. I haven’t seen it for months. I suspect that Jake the Dog has probably eaten it. You know how much he likes to chew on plastic."

"Get me the green one then," commanded Robin. "That should be enough." To hear is to obey. I fetched the green fly swatter and handed it to Robin.

Thwack!

As soon as Jake the Dog heard the noise of the fly swatter swatting he raced into the kitchen barking his head off. He loves fly swatters. He enjoys snacking on the fat and juicy corpses that they leave behind.

"Damn!" said Robin. "Missed. Sorry, Jake but they were too fast for me."

"Try harder," suggested Jake.

Thwack!

"Got one," said Robin gleefully.

The dead fly fell squashily to the floor and Jake pounced on it. He sucked thoughtfully for a moment and then spat it out. "Yuck!" he said. "That’s the nastiest tasting fly I’ve ever had. You are what you eat, of course. So what have you been feeding them?"

"Insinkerator mush," I told him, "and avocado skins waiting for the compost bin."

"That would explain it," said Jake. "Dogs, much like Tiggers, really hate avocados."

"I thought that was thistles," I said, puzzled.

"And avocados," said Jake. He trotted off to the bedroom to lie on our bed (which he’s not allowed to do) secure in the knowledge that we were far too busy chasing flies to pay any attention to what he was up to.

The next few days were punctuated by loud Thwack! noises as Robin hunted flies with a grim intensity. Most thwacks were closely followed by cries of, "Dammit!" as the target fly spotted the descending swatter and quickly zipped away unscathed. "They are far too agile," said Robin. "I’m going to have to develop a new approach."

"What other approaches can you take?" I asked. "Let’s face it, a fly swatter is not a subtle device. It really doesn’t lend itself to new tactics. To wallop or not to wallop. That is the only question."

"These flies are all very young and they are all very randy," said Robin. "I keep catching them in flagrante delicto. So all I have to do is listen for their orgasmic cries and then I can wallop them while their attention is distracted. What a way to go." She sighed wistfully. "Imagine being crushed to death at the moment of maximum pleasure. I almost envy them..."

* * * *

2061 – Odyssey Three and 3001 – The Final Odyssey are the last two novels in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 (Odyssey) series. They are generally considered to be among his weaker novels, but I’m rather fond of both of them. They are full of the delightful Clarkean observations and throw away sarcasm and wit that are so characteristic of Clarke at his best.

Clarke has chosen to set his third odyssey in the – at first glance rather arbitrary – year of 2061 because this is the year that marks the return of Halley’s comet to the solar system. A significant plot thread concerns a landing on the comet. The exploration reveals many mysteries, few of which are resolved. But isn’t that how real science works? Look at all the unanswered questions that our current exploration of Mars has raised.

The novel’s protagonist is Dr Heywood Floyd, the man who also had a significant role in the first two novels (2001 and 2010 respectively) and this link provides a degree of continuity for the plot. We also learn a lot more about what has been happening on Jupiter’s moon Europa, since we left it at the end of the second novel, 2010 – Odyssey Two. Unfortunately these passages require a lot of scene setting in order to explain how we got to the current situation, and Clarke has chosen to do it by quoting vast chunks of the earlier novel, which strikes me as a rather lazy way to do the job and which I feel is somewhat akin to cheating – it also means that 2061 is really only half a novel because it incorporates so much of the earlier 2010 text within itself.

The monolith makers have transformed Jupiter into a small sun which has been dubbed Lucifer. Under its influence, life on Europa has continued to flourish and evolve. A curious geophysical phenomenon dubbed Mount Zeus has been observed on the surface of Europa and the bulk of the novel concerns itself with an investigation into what it might be. Clarke’s normal tendency to think big and think extremely odd provides a satisfyingly surprising explanation for the phenomenon.

The novel is one of Clarke’s more cerebral works. There’s a little bit of mild melodrama in it, but really very little actually happens. The story, such as it is, revolves mainly around Clarke’s thought experiments. It’s undoubtedly the weakest of the Odyssey novels in terms of drama but it’s stuffed so full of ideas that I found it hard to put down. Clarke was a true visionary and, generally speaking, a very deep thinker.

3001 – The Final Odyssey is set exactly a thousand years after the events of the first novel. A lot can happen in a thousand years. Frank Poole, who we last saw dying as a result of a malfunction in the HAL 9000 computer during the mission described in the original novel (and film), 2001 – A Space Odyssey, has been revived a thousand years after his death. We see the world of 3001 through his twenty-first century eyes. That’s a hoary old SF idea of course – a person from the past is given a travelogue around, and an explanation of, the world of the future – but Clarke carries it off brilliantly well. He uses the device to bring all the themes he raised in the earlier novels to satisfying conclusions so again, much like its predecessor, this is very much a novel of ideas rather more than it is a novel of action.

Although the Odyssey sequence is pure science fiction, it’s fundamental themes are inspired more by philosophical and religious ideas than they are by scientific thinking. Clarke once remarked, of the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey, that "MGM doesn't know this yet, but they're paying for the first $10,000,000 religious movie". There’s a lovely throw away line in 3001 that references this when one of the characters remarks:

"When all the old religions were discredited – let me tell you about Pope Pius XX sometime – one of the greatest men in history! – we still needed a word for the Prime Cause, or the Creator of the Universe – if there is one...".

The irony of discrediting all religious explanations in a novel sequence inspired by religious thinking is quite typical of Clarke’s idiosyncratic views about our place in the universe (and, as an aside, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the study of Pius XX on that fateful day). Clarke’s humour, his delight in paradoxical thinking and his willingness to embrace outrageous ideas have never been better presented than in this fine novel. 3001 – A Final Odyssey is my very favourite book in the Odyssey sequence.

* * * *

Robin’s new tactics worked wonders. Fornicating flies died all over the kitchen, mostly in pairs, but sometimes Robin got lucky and came across troiliists indulging their numerical fetish. Occasionally, on a very good day, she discovered and slaughtered enormous group orgies, all of which appeared to have been made up of extras taking a break from Fellini’s Satyricon.

But no matter how many flies Robin killed there were never less than a dozen or so buzzing around the kitchen, panting with eagerness for me to start preparing our evening meal for them. "I’m fed up with this," declared Robin. "It’s time for chemical warfare!" She dived into a cupboard and emerged with a can of fly spray which she squirted liberally all over the house. I began to have my doubts about its effectiveness when I eavesdropped on two flies that were zooming through the chemical clouds in joyful bed-spring spirals of buzzing wings.

"That’s quite a tasty vintage," said fly number one. "Don’t you agree?"

"Yes," said fly number two. "It exhibits deliciously decaying overtones on the palate, with a glorious aftertaste of excrement on the follow through. Really puts hair on your chest."

"Let’s have a party," suggested the first fly.

"Good idea," said the second. "I’ll go and fetch the gang from the compost bin." He looped an exuberant loop and flew off in search of compatible friends. The first fly did a perfect Immelman and followed him. Soon the kitchen was full of flies playing loud rock music and sipping the fly spray from crystal goblets.

"So much for chemical warfare," said Robin. "What else can we do?"

"Let me ask google about the best way to kill flies," I suggested.

* * * *

I always make a point of reading reviews written by James Nicoll, a very insightful Canadian reviewer and critic. However he does have his idiosyncratic prejudices (don’t we all?). He refuses to read anything published by Baen books because he disagrees with the political and social stance taken by some of Baen’s authors. Furthermore, he tends to chose the books he does read on the basis of the gender and ethnicity of the author rather than because the storyline attracts hum. Every so often he publishes statistics that summarise his recent reading, and he castigates himself unmercifully if he feels that he hasn’t been reading enough books by non-white, non-male authors. I find that habit very weird and mildly creepy. But if you can put his odd idiosyncrasies to one side, you will find that he has a lot of interesting things to say about the books he reviews.

Before I read what James Nicoll had to say about them, I had never heard of James Alan Gardner or Emma Newman, but in an article he wrote for Tor.com he explained that both authors had written series in which all the individual books stood alone and therefore could be read in any order. This sounded very attractive to me – I hate series in which the later books are completely incomprehensible if you haven’t read the earlier ones – so I settled down for a jolly good read…

Expendable is a novel in Gardner’s League of Peoples series. The League is an association of alien races that "rules" the galaxy. It offers to uplift other races provided they eschew violence. The people of Earth, presented with this choice, have largely accepted the conditions, though we are told that some humans who refuse to give up their violent ways remain confined to Earth.

The series features members of a para-military Explorer Corps. The Corps is made up of operatives who are all disabled or disfigured. The idea is that because the operatives are so extremely unattractive, their ugly and often repulsive disabilities will stigmatize them in the minds of the public at large and therefore if the operatives happen to die on their high risk exploratory missions nobody will mourn them and nobody will mind that they have died. So there won’t be any bad publicity. There’s a breathtaking cynicism about that which I find quite attractive! Gardner does not really say very much about the moral implications of this stance – it is just a given – though he does have some fun playing with the idea that perhaps society really does place far too much importance on the appearance of the "beautiful people" that it idolises.

Festina Ramos is one of these explorers. Her specific physical disability is a large port-wine birthmark on her cheek. Festina is assigned to escort a fleet admiral named Chee to Melaquin, a planet with a somewhat ambiguous status. For forty years, every explorer who has landed there has lost contact and disappeared without trace, nobody knows why. Consequently, the high council which governs the human members of the League has started to use Melaquin as a handy place to get rid of troublesome people without killing them directly. Killing them would be a violation of League directives, of course. Admiral Chee is well over a century old. He is unstable and possibly senile. He’s an embarrassment to everybody. Festina is ordered to get him safely to Melaquin. After that he’s on his own. The fact that she herself will also softly and suddenly vanish away once she gets him to the planet is irrelevant. She’s an explorer. She’s expendable.

What Festina discovers when she arrives on Melaquin turns out to have profound implications for both the League and the high council. Here there be tygers, otherwise known as spoilers, so I’ll stop describing the plot.

The novel has pacing problems – the whole point of the story is to investigate what is happening on Melaquin. But the book is more than half over before Festina even arrives at the planet. A certain amount of scene setting and preparation is necessary of course, if only so that the reader has some understanding of how the setup is supposed to work, but Gardner spends far too much time on it and the early sections of the novel drag a bit.

Expendable was Gardner’s first novel, which probably explains the pacing problems. I felt that the society that he portrays in it was unconvincing, but I gather from other reviews that in his later novels he does address the societal problems that failed to convince me in this book. It’s quite a light-hearted novel (though it is not really a funny one and nor is it intended to be). Once Festina arrives on Melaquin it actually gets quite inventive. Despite its failings, I found Expendable sufficiently intriguing that I am very willing to read more of the novels in the series.

I’m not sure that I’d say the same about Emma Newman’s Planetfall. Lee Suh-Mi receives a revelation and equips an expedition to a world far beyond Earth. Renata Ghali, a friend, lover and disciple of Lee Suh-Mi gives up everything to follow Lee Suh-Mi’s vision. They establish a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Lee Suh-Mi has since lived in complete isolation, reappearing every so often to present ambiguous messages.

Twenty two years pass in this fashion. Then a stranger appears. He is far too young to have been part of the group who first arrived on the planet, and he bears a remarkable resemblance to Lee Suh-Mi…

It’s all a bit too mystical and revelatory for my taste, and Renata, who is the narrator of the novel, is such a thoroughly unstable person that I felt quite uncomfortable looking at the world through her neurotic eyes. Furthermore, the story is what James Blish used to call an "idiot plot", the kind of story that can only take place if every person in it is an idiot. If the people involved had simply talked to each other and shared what they knew about the situation instead of keeping secrets and bottling everything up inside, all the problems could easily have been solved or avoided. And if they had done that, of course, there wouldn’t have been a story to tell at all – and that would almost certainly be a bonus.

I seem to be a bit of a voice crying in the wilderness about this one – the novel has received a lot of critical praise. But I just found it annoying.

* * * *

Rather to my surprise, google informed me that good old-fashioned fly papers were still the very best way to get rid of flies. These are simply long strips of paper covered in a ferociously sticky goo which releases pheromones that the flies simply can’t resist. When the flies land on the goo they stick fast to it and are unable to fly away again. The more they struggle to escape, the stickier and more firmly trapped they become. After an excruciating time, they die. Fly papers have been in use for about a century and a half and I was really rather surprised to find that they were still being manufactured. When they were first invented, arsenic was incorporated into the sticky goo (presumably to give the flies a more humane death) but that formula was soon discontinued because far too many aggrieved wives were soaking the poison out of the fly papers and serving it to their husbands in cups of sweet tea to disguise the taste. This was generally regarded as a bad thing, though I can’t think why. So nowadays the papers are quite harmless unless you happen to be a fly.

Several local hardware stores claimed to have fly papers for sale. We dashed out and bought some.

Fly papers come rolled up in cylinders. There are handholds on the top and the bottom which need to be clasped firmly as you unroll the paper and straighten it out. Great gobs of goo stretch stringingly as it unrolls. I was astonished at just how sticky the fly papers were – I hadn’t realised that anything quite that sticky could actually exist in the world. I unrolled several of them and hung them in strategic locations around the house. I waited to see what would happen next.

"There’s one!" cried Robin gleefully. A fat, frisky fly landed on one of the papers and started to thrash around in panic as it realised that it couldn’t fly away again. Robin watched its death agonies with great satisfaction. "Brilliant!" she said.

Over the next day of so, lots of flies landed on the fly papers. The papers became black with corpses. We had to turn on the subtitles on the television because the screams of dying flies drowned the dialogue on our favourite programmes. The fly papers were the most efficient fly killing devices I’d ever seen. They even managed to catch a moth!

And then one day one of them caught a Robin.

* * * *

Amongst Our Weapons is the ninth novel in Ben  Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like all the rest, it’s a fantasy crossed with a police procedural and injected with a healthy dose of comedy. I think this one might be my favourite of the series so far.

It starts with a murder, as these things usually do. This particular murder takes place in the London Silver Vaults. The victim, one David Moore, had pointed a pistol at the shopkeeper and demanded a ring that his ex-wife had left with the shop. The ring is described as a puzzle ring inscribed with mysterious symbols. Unfortunately the shop has no record of the transaction and the ring cannot be found anywhere. Then the robbery is interrupted by a flash of blinding light and David Moore is left lying dead on the floor with a huge hole carved in his chest. Clearly the murder has something supernatural about it and so DC Peter Grant and his team are brought in to investigate.

Soon they are knee deep in a mystery involving enchanted rings, a university cult, a bible study group, another branch of magicians, a historical vendetta and someone who appears to be the Angel of Death. Meanwhile Grant’s River Goddess partner Beverly is about to give birth to twins, and suitable preparations have to be made. A JCB digger and quite a lot of concrete are required…

All of these disparate threads are tied together with a lot of Tolkien jokes (rings of power, obviously), Dr Who jokes and Monty Python references (even the title of the book is a Monty Python reference). All the familiar people do all their familiar things and we even get to meet some new characters – I particularly enjoyed my introduction to Glossop, an utterly charming river near Manchester.

Despite the comedy, the book also has its serious elements and some tellingly eerie magical moments. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in which Peter calls up the restless ghosts of pilots whose planes crashed on the moors. He gathers them together and sends them off on their final journey. They all seem very keen to go. It’s an extremely emotional scene. I’ve travelled over those bleak moors, and I know how they look and how they feel. I thought that the author did a brilliant job of evoking the place.

Amongst Our Weapons an excellent story, excellently told. The foxes are cute and so are Beverley’s twins, when they finally put in an appearance.

* * * *

"Aaaarrrggghhh! It’s all tangled up in my hair," shrieked Robin as she inadvertently backed into a sticky, dangling, strip which was festooned with dead bodies. She reached up and tried to untangle herself but the fly paper just twisted itself more tightly into her hair. Eventually, with some effort, she managed to untwist it all and escape from its clutches. I was vaguely disappointed – I’d been looking forward to rescuing her by cutting off all her hair.  "Now I’ve got sticky all over my hands," she said in disgusted tones. "Ugh!" A fly buzzed around her in an interested fashion and then died a painful death on her left little finger. "Ewwww!"

Robin dashed off to the bathroom and I heard the sounds of vigorous scrubbing. "It won’t come off," she yelled. "I’m all covered in sticky. What can I do?"

"Don’t worry," I said soothingly. "I took a course on organic solvents when I studied chemistry at university. Try nail polish remover. That stuff is mostly acetone and it’s really good at dissolving nasties. Once you’ve got the goo off, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. You don’t want to leave acetone on your hands for too long."

"What happens if I leave it on?" asked Robin.

"Your hands will dissolve," I said. "Now you know why chemists, particularly male chemists, wash their hands before they go to the toilet. There are some parts of your body that that you really, really don’t want to dissolve..."

Presently a happy, non-stick Robin emerged from the bathroom. "That worked a treat," she said. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome," I said. I decided not to ruin the moment, so I didn’t tell her about the dead flies that were still trapped in her hair.


Arthur C. Clarke 2061 – Odyssey Three Del Rey
Arthur C. Clarke 3001 – The Final Odyssey Del Rey
James Alan Gardner Expendable Eos
Emma Newman Planetfall Ace
Ben Aaronovitch Amongst Our Weapons Orion
     
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