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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (bracatus corporosa)

It Isn’t SF until the Fat Alien Sings

Introduction

I’m sometimes asked how I write these columns and how long it takes me. As it happens, I can define the construction of this one fairly precisely, so I thought I’d share the process with you.

Before I even laid a finger on the keyboard, I spent a day or so thinking about just how I was going to approach reviewing the two non-fiction books that I discuss in this column. I find non-fiction very hard to review. After all, it means that I’m writing non-fiction about non-fiction, which always strikes me as being somewhat oxymoronic, and more than a little bit meta! Generally speaking, trying to write reviews of non-fiction books leaves me floundering. I considered several different ways of tackling the task and I discarded all of them before I finally settled on what I thought was the correct approach. Then I sat down and began actually putting words together. As it turned out, my ideas about how to review the non-fiction books all proved to be unworkable in practice and so in the end I just had to wing it. Shrug. So it goes.

The final article is just over 4000 words long and I wrote it in four consecutive eight-hour days. That’s four days of staring at a screen, typing words, rearranging them, deleting some of them and then writing them again, only differently this time. On the final day, after the first draft was complete, I printed out a hard copy which I corrected by hand. Then I incorporated those changes back into the electronic version. I did this printing and proofing stage three times before I considered the article to be finished.

So let’s call it one thinking day and four writing days. That’s five eight-hour days, which makes a total of 40 hours work to produce 4000 words – roughly 100 words an hour. What can I say? I’m a slow writer…

* * * *

Eversion claims, quite rightly, to be a science fiction novel by Alastair Reynolds, though when I started reading it I began to wonder if perhaps some other book had been bound between its covers by mistake. As the story opens, we find ourselves on a sailing ship called Demeter somewhere off the coast of Norway, some time in the nineteenth century. The novel is narrated in the first person by Doctor Silas Coade, the ship’s surgeon. Where’s the SF in that scenario, I wondered to myself? The only science fictional element that I could find were hints that the ship was searching for a mysterious edifice though, to begin with at least, we have very little information as to what the edifice (or perhaps, more properly, The Edifice) might be. Aha! I thought to myself, being old and cynical and far too well-schooled in the tropes of these kinds of science fiction novels – clearly The Edifice is an alien artefact. Silas and the crew will spend the story exploring it and they will learn lots about the aliens who built it. I settled down for a nice, beguiling comfort read.

I could not have been more wrong…

The more I learned about the Demeter and her crew, the more puzzled I became. Quite early on in the story, Silas is required to operate on Coronel Ramos, an injured Mexican crew member who (we later learn) claims to have fought with Santa Anna at the battle of the Alamo. That battle took place in 1836. However the organiser of the expedition is one Master Topolsky who claims to have been very friendly with both Peter I and Catherine II of Russia. Peter and Catherine died in the eighteenth century, Peter in 1725 and Catherine in 1796. Since this expedition is taking place in the nineteenth century, presumably some years after the Battle of the Alamo was fought, it is clear that either Master Topolsky is about a hundred and fifty years old, or he is telling porkies, or something very odd and paradoxical is going on...

Silas uses an elegantly constructed trephination device to open the Coronel’s skull in order to relieve the pressure on his brain. As the operation progresses, the mysterious Milady Ada Cossile gives an impromptu lecture on the different roots for the words trepanation and trephination both of which are synonyms for the operational technique that Silas employs but neither of which are etymologically related to each other. It’s an oddly surreal episode which becomes even stranger as the story progresses and Ada Cossile takes all the opportunities she can find to lecture, and sometimes belittle and berate, Silas.

Silas has the oddest hobby – he is writing a novel, an adventure story filled with such impossible marvels as ships that sail by steam, cannons that fire volleys without being reloaded, and paintings that compose themselves by light alone. One of the midshipmen on the Demeter has been reading instalments of the novel out loud to the crew and he reports that they much prefer Silas’ stories to those of Defoe and Swift which were their only entertainment before Silas came on board. Silas is pleased by the praise, though he himself doesn’t think much of his scribblings and Ada Cossile is positively scathing about them. In later chapters, Silas will come to experience the reality of all of the marvels he has imagined and of many more besides. This too is more than a little peculiar…

Eventually the paradoxes and oddities are resolved in a very satisfying and totally unexpected manner. I would have been quite happy for the novel to have stopped at that point, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Once the story has produced its great revelation, it degenerates into a fairly routine bit of thud and blunder as Reynolds spends far too much time dotting t’s and crossing i’s. Nevertheless the momentum generated by the sheer cleverness of the denouement kept me reading all the way to the end. I’ve attempted to read several of Alastair Reynolds’ novels in the past but this is the only one I’ve ever actually managed to finish. I think that says a lot about the cleverness of the ideas and of the writing and of the way that the characters all come so boundingly alive on the page. I found myself really caring about was happening to them all.

Eversion  is nothing if not up to date. It concerns itself with some quite advanced mathematical ideas and it has a lot to say about some philosophical issues that have preoccupied many very clever minds of late. I still think it’s about a hundred pages too long – but despite that it’s the very best thing that Alastair Reynolds has written to date.

No Way by S. J. Morden is a direct sequel to the author’s previous novel One Way. It follows on directly from the earlier book and if they were both bound together in one volume you’d never notice the join. So be warned, you really do need to have read the first book before you embark on reading this one.

Having said that, as the novel opens, we reacquaint ourselves with Frank Kitteridge, the sole survivor of an expedition of convicts sent on a one way trip to Mars by the XO Corporation. The convicts were required to build a base that will be used by NASA’s "official" exploration expedition. Only one of the convicts (not Frank) was expected to be alive when the NASA astronauts touched down.

For the first third of the book, Frank is completely alone on Mars and he spends his time cleaning up the mess left by the murders of the other convicts. He does his best to keep the base ticking over so that when the NASA astronauts arrive the Martian exploration can go ahead as planned. He sees that as his only chance to return to Earth.

The NASA personnel eventually turn up and initially everything goes well. But then things start to go awry. It turns out that Kitteridge’s band of convicts was not the only expedition that XO had sent to Mars. Furthermore, it is very clear that the movers and shakers at XO have bent (and almost certainly broken) a lot of laws in order to set up their clandestine expeditions. As this becomes more clear to the NASA people, the XO executives start taking steps to protect themselves from prosecution. Soon more people begin to die.

If you can accept the absurdity of the premise that a secret expedition of expendable convicts can build and equip the base that the NASA astronauts will use, and that such a conspiracy can (to begin with at least) be kept secret, then this is an exciting and well thought out novel. Morden evokes the Martian terrain and the difficulty of living and working in it so convincingly that I’ll swear I could taste the grit, and this goes a long way towards reinforcing my willing suspension of disbelief. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing and the ending, while complete in itself, is sufficiently ambiguous that there may well be a third novel yet to come.

These days Lawrence Block is one of the biggest names in crime fiction. His novels about the private detective Matthew Scudder are definitive examples of the genre. He is held in very high regard indeed. But it wasn’t always so – Sinner Man was his very first crime thriller, written (probably) round about 1960. At that time Block was making a precarious living churning out potboilers and porn in a never ending stream for a variety of sleazy fly-by-night publishers. He sent the manuscript of Sinner Man off to to one of them, foolishly neglecting to keep a copy for himself,  and it vanished without trace. Block forgot all about it, he had bigger fish to fry. Well, other ones anyway. Size is relative.

Then the internet happened, and Block started to self-publish his early work as ebooks. He even re-sold some of those novels to commercial publishers. The money didn’t pour in, but it definitely trickled very satisfactorily and Block began to wonder about the books that were missing from his files. He could find no reference to Sinner Man in any on-line book repository and he was starting  to wonder if it had ever actually been published at all! Certainly he had never received any money for it and he’d never been sent an author’s copy. But that was pretty much normal practice back in those days. However, just on the off chance, he published a synopsis of the plot on his web site (he still vaguely remembered what the story was about) and he asked if anybody recognised it. Sure enough, someone did, and they sent Block their copy so that he could verify it. The novel that arrived wasn’t called Sinner Man  and the author wasn’t listed as Lawrence Block but nevertheless it was definitely Sinner Man. Block welcomed the book back with open arms and he sold it to Hard Case Crime. So he finally got paid for it. And now, for the first time in at least sixty years, everyone can read it again. Is it worth reading? Yes and no…

As the novel opens, a Connecticut executive named Don Barshter has just accidentally killed his wife during an argument. Rather than doing the sensible thing of calling the emergency services and turning himself in to the authorities, he simply stuffs his wife’s body in a closet, packs a bag and goes on the run, thus guaranteeing that if he is ever caught he will be charged with murder. He ends up in Buffalo, New York, where he changes his name to Nate Crowley. His plan is to ingratiate himself with the local mob. He succeeds in this beyond his wildest dreams. He sets himself up as a hit man and is soon an indispensable member of the mob, handing out mob justice whenever he is called upon to do so. Then he is offered a chance to rise close to the top of the ranks of the mobsters by taking part in a coup that will destroy the local boss and set Nate up as second in command to the coup leader. What could possibly go wrong?

Things are going swimmingly until, quite by chance, his identity is compromised and Don Barshter surfaces again and is duly fingered as a suspect for his wife’s murder. Now Nate / Don faces danger every way he turns.

It’s a fairly routine plot of course, but the execution of it is never less than competent. The events of the story are skilfully woven together and the tension never lets up. The characters are not cardboard, they definitely come alive on the page. I really wanted to know what happened next. But nevertheless…

I have very little patience with people who criticise older works of literature on the grounds that the social and political attitudes they display don’t meet currently accepted standards. Let’s face it,the books were written when they were written and things were very different then. We’ve changed, not necessarily always for the better, and condemning older works because the author was not privy to the social criteria that would be accepted by readers in future decades is ridiculous and quite futile. Was Shakespeare anti-semitic  (The Merchant of Venice) and racist (Othello)? Yes, of course he was. Does it matter? Not in the slightest. Shakespeare doesn’t care. He’s certainly not going to re-write the plays just to cater to our prejudices. The situation is what it is, just accept it and move on. The existence of the (currently controversial) themes does, of course, provide another basis for the interpretation of the work, but really that’s about as far as it goes. I certainly can’t see any reason for condemning the writings or for refusing to read them. Therefore, generally speaking, such criticisms just pass me by. I find them unimportant.

But having said all that, the quite extraordinary misogyny displayed by Sinner Man is so overt and so extreme that it even managed to raise my eyebrows up into my hairline, and make me feel a little bit uncomfortable. I suspect that the attitudes expressed in the novel might have been pretty extreme even for the era in which the book was written. On the other hand, people may perhaps have been a little bit more willing to turn a blind eye to those kind of things back then than they are now. On the gripping hand, that can’t be used as a justification, of course.

Because of this, I would dearly love to force some of today’s more snowflakey critics to read this book from cover to cover just so that I could watch their heads explode. Now that would be truly entertaining!

Ian Rankin’s new novel A Heart Full of Headstones is the latest of his John Rebus novels, number twenty four, if I’ve counted them correctly. The story opens with Rebus in the dock in a courtroom, musing about the case being brought against him. It is not clear at this point just what he has been charged with, though we do know that the offence is serious and that he could be facing a long prison sentence. Given his age and general ill-health, it is likely that he will die in jail.

The bulk of the novel concerns itself with the incidents that led up to Rebus’ arrest and then it returns to the courtroom as the trial comes to an end.

Rebus has been asked to do a favour for his long-term nemesis Morris "Big Ger" Cafferty, a mover and shaker in Edinburgh’s underworld. Cafferty wants Rebus to find a man who once worked for him but who went missing, presumed killed, when he stole a lot of money from Cafferty. Cafferty denies having killed the man and claims he simply wants to make amends and forgive him. Rebus has his doubts about Cafferty’s altruistic protestations, but his curiosity is piqued and he wants to find out what Cafferty is really up to. So he goes looking for the man.

Meanwhile DI Siobhan Clarke is dealing with a very difficult case. A policeman from the Tynecastle station, a notorious hotbed of police corruption, has been charged with assaulting his wife. He claims the abuse has been caused by the PTSD that he suffers from, and that this was brought about by his attempts to deal with the pressure of the corrupt practices taking place at Tynecastle. He promises to name names and give full details. Word comes down from on high that he is to be listened to carefully. This is seen as a good opportunity to clean the shop and finally clamp down on a situation that is becoming more and more embarrassing – there is no place in the modern police force for the old style of policing. These days, cutting corners, intimidating suspects, and fitting up career criminals because they must be guilty of something is very much frowned upon. The Tynecastle police are also notoriously sexist. The few policewomen who are transferred there never stay long, and more than one has resigned abruptly.

It probably goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that  Big Ger Cafferty has the Tynecastle police on his payroll and that Rebus himself has a long association with the Tynecastle policeman who is the ring leader in all of these dealings.

This is a subtle and complex novel. Very little is what it seems to be. Motives are murky and there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Clearly both Rebus’ and Clarke’s investigations are linked, but the linkages are far twistier than they appear to be at first glance. Cafferty is playing a very deep game indeed and Rebus is a prisoner of circumstance. He himself isn’t squeaky clean at all, and it’s well past time for him to examine his conscience in order to see if the excuses with which he tries to justify his behaviour really stand up to close scrutiny.

I watched the TV show Call the Midwife long before I read the Jennifer Worth autobiography on which it is based. Consequently when I did finally read the book I was already very familiar with the characters and situations it describes. I was astonished and very pleased to find how closely the TV production stuck to the book – I recognised everybody! The show did a wonderful job of translating the book to the screen.

The book describes Jennifer Worth’s experiences as a midwife in the East End of London in the early 1950s. Jennifer Worth was a wonderful observer and chronicler of the times and of the places and of the people. If it’s nothing else, the book is a very acutely observed social history of a long-gone era – by the end of the decade the slums had largely been demolished and the community had changed beyond all recognition. Jennifer Worth’s book brought that old East End alive with a sparkling wit and great good humour.

I absolutely loved both the TV series and the book though in some ways I think I prefer the book because it manages to deal quite brilliantly with two aspects of life that the TV series simply could not show on the screen. The first is the smell (fortunately perhaps, TV has not yet developed smell-o-vision). The East End slums were never an olfactory paradise and Jennifer Worth has an enviable ability to describe the routine stenches of everyday living, together with the added fragrances that the process of childbirth itself brings to the mixture.

Also, by the very nature of their job, midwives have to spend a lot of time closely examining female genitalia. Again, this is something that cannot be shown on a prime time television show, for obvious reasons. But Jennifer Worth does not find such things inhibiting (it’s her job after all) and she’s particularly good at describing with glee and gusto the sights (and smells – did I mention that she’s very good at smells?) of both healthy and unhealthy genitals.

Along the way, the book also cleared up a minor mystery which had puzzled me for many years. Childbirth is a very messy business and I always wondered how people managed to clean the nasties off the sheets and the mattresses after the baby had been born. The secret turns out to be surprisingly simple – before anything starts to happen,  the midwife just covers the bed with non-absorbent brown paper (these days I suppose they use plastic, but the principle is the same). Mystery solved!

It’s not all joy and laughter, of course (though there is a lot of that). Life was hard and grim and poverty certainly took its toll. The scenes describing a young girl’s induction into prostitution were particularly harrowing. Jennifer Worth does not sugar coat the things that she saw. She reports the plain, unvarnished truth, and that, of course, is where the value of her book lies.

Rob Wilkins was Terry Pratchett’s personal assistant (PA) for many years. Who better to write a biography of the man? Apart from Terry’s wife and daughter, he was probably closer to Terry than anybody else. Before Terry died, he made notes towards an autobiography. Rob has expanded on these and added his own memories of working closely with Terry. Terry used to refer to Rob as "The keeper of the anecdotes" and it turns out that he has a lot of them. The final result of all this is Terry Pratchett - A Life With Footnotes.

It was never very clear why Terry felt he needed a PA.  Apparently he had heard Jilly Cooper talk about her invaluable PA and it seemed that he was immediately overcome with a massive case of staff envy and so he went looking for one of his own. Rob’s duties were never very clear, probably because Terry himself wasn’t really sure what they were supposed to be. One day might find Rob (quite literally) digging a ditch in Terry’s garden. On another day he’d be booking travel tickets to far away places with strange sounding names and on yet another day, when the progress of Terry’s Alzheimer’s meant that that he could no longer speak in public, Rob would find himself delivering Terry’s speeches and reading from his novels while the great man watched, nodding benignly.

Every word of this book makes it clear that Rob was very close to Terry. He admired the man hugely. Nevertheless he has not written a hagiography. To a certain extent he does attempt to smooth over Terry’s curmudgeonly and often disagreeable personality with a thin veneer that tries to portray the man as a loveable, comedic eccentric. But the real Terry Pratchett is always present, just under the surface of the words, peering up through them and gesturing angrily. Anybody who met Terry will have no difficulty spotting him there. In real life Terry was arrogant, short tempered and rude. Conversations with him always felt like treading on eggshells, you never knew what would set him off. And because he was such an accomplished wordsmith, his tongue could cut you to pieces with scalpel keen precision. In an obituary, Neil Gaiman described Terry as an angry man, and he wasn’t wrong in that assertion.

Obviously there was a lot more to Terry than just his irascibility. And it is this other side of Terry Pratchett that Rob Wilkins explains so well. For example, Rob refers to Terry as "...the most married man in England" and by that he doesn’t mean that Terry had lots and lots of wives, he means that Terry met and married Lynn when they were both very young and from that moment on she was the only woman in his life, apart from his daughter Rhianna, of course. I once had the pleasure of eating breakfast with Terry and his family at some convention or other and the love that streamed across the table between them was almost palpable. You can’t help but admire him for that.

And of course there were the books. Those very wise and sublimely witty novels that turned Pratchett into a multi-millionaire and a household name. Turtles all the way down.

The final chapters of Terry Pratchett - A Life With Footnotes describe Terry’s gradual deterioration as the Alzheimer’s disease that eventually killed him progressed inexorably. These chapters are utterly heartbreaking and they make for very uncomfortable reading. So read them and weep. That’s what I did.

Terry left instructions in his will that the hard drive from his computer should be removed and destroyed by running over it with a steam engine called the Lord Jericho at the Great Dorset Steam Fair. Rob made certain that Terry’s wishes were carried out to the letter. But he does drop some hints about the things that lurked on that disk drive:

All those books we never got to read! How many of them might there have been? Several were already under way: ‘Raising Taxes’; ‘Running Water’; ‘The Turtle Stops’; a second volume of adventures for the Amazing Maurice; ‘What Dodger Did Next’; ‘Twilight Canyons’, in which the elderly patients in a home for the bewildered solve the mystery of the missing treasure and defeat the rise of the Dark Lord despite the fact that many of them don’t entirely know whether it’s Tuesday or a lemon; ‘The Dark Incontinent’ about the secret of a crystal cave thick with carnivorous plants; a whodunnit starring Constable Feeney, briefly entitled ‘The Feeney’, in homage to the great 1970s TV cop show The Sweeney, and set among the goblins; ‘Up School!’, where Susan Sto Helit becomes the headmistress of Quirm College for Young Ladies; ‘Cab’s Well’, about the poor forsaken chap at the bottom of the wishing well whose job it is to make the wishes come true when the lucky coins get tossed in; and ‘Clang!’, a story of revolution on Discworld, with campanology as the main medium of communication from place to place.

‘But Terry,’ I said, when he had got me to jot down the initial thought for that last one on an A4 pad, with ‘Clang!’ written, at his insistence, ten lines tall at the top of the page, ‘haven’t we already done revolutions in Night Watch?’

‘Ah, but that’s the thing about revolutions,’ Terry replied. ‘They do tend to come round.’

Neil Gaiman once said, "This is the loophole writers get – as long as you read us, we’re not dead". By that rubric, TERRY ATE'NT DEAD. And he never will be. Everybody knows that.

GNU Pterry.


Alastair Reynolds Eversion Orbit
S. J. Morden No Way Orbit
Lawrence Block Sinner Man Hard Case Crime
Ian Rankin A Heart Full of Headstones Little, Brown
Jennifer Worth Call the Midwife Penguin
Rod Wilkins Terry Pratchett - A Life With Footnotes Doubleday
     
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