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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (zelazny maximus)

Always Eat Your Porridge With A Silver Spoon

The New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA) has published a series of six books which contain all of Roger Zelazny’s short fiction and poetry together with essays and commentaries. A seventh supplementary volume is an illustrated bibliography of Roger’s work. The books themselves are beautiful works of art in their own right and they look very handsome on my bookshelves. It goes without saying, of course, that their contents are also truly wonderful.

I’ve long been an admirer of Roger Zelazny’s writing. I was a teenager when Roger first started publishing his stories and perhaps I was at a very impressionable age because his stories hit me like a thunderbolt. I was very pleased to find, on re-reading them in these collections, that time has not diminished their effect at all. The magic still remains very firmly in place. But what did astonish me was to learn just how many of the stories that had affected me so much in my teens and twenties were from very early in his career. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, which probably bulks largest in my remembrance, is actually the very first story in the very first volume of the set! I was amazed to discover that it was published all the way back in 1963, though given the difficulty of finding American SF magazines in England in those days, I suspect that I probably first read it in some anthology or collection a few years later than that.

Browsing through these NESFA books re-introduced me to very many old friends and it also acquainted me with a lot of stories that I had either forgotten about or, more likely, had simply never seen before because they were published in places that I had no access to. Finding so many new (to me) Zelazny stories was an unexpected bonus.

Reading a lot of Roger’s stories one after another makes it very clear just what a wonderful prose stylist he was and how wide a variety of voices he employed in the telling of his tales. Roger’s stories are the epitome of compare and contrast, that exam question to end all exam questions favoured by teachers all over the world! And their differences – and similarities – certainly do reward that kind of approach. Roger was ever an experimentalist, and while each story varied in style, tone and mood, each one was always indisputably Roger. There was nobody else quite like him. That is what makes his work so memorable. Furthermore, he combined his stylistic experimentations with a gleefully wicked sense of humour. All of this taken together never fails to excite, amuse and move me every time I pick up one of his books – his novel Doorways in the Sand, for example, is at one and the same time, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read but also one of the most subtle and most beautifully written. These are not contradictory statements.

For many years Roger regarded himself primarily as a poet which certainly accounts for the very poetic nature of his prose. I am not a good audience for poetry – such condensed emotion and encapsulated thinking tends to confuse me and pass me by – but I can recognise a clever turn of phrase when I see one and Roger managed to come up with those time after time after time in both his poetry and his prose. He always knew the right words to use. One of his poetry collections is called To Spin is Miracle Cat. That sentence makes no sense at all on any literal, objective level but it speaks volumes emotionally and subjectively. Partly, I suspect, it’s the very clever and slightly unconventional use of the noun miracle as an adjective which gives the sentence an added frisson of the unexpected. And of course anyone who has ever lived with a cat will understand the entirety of the sentence perfectly. They do spin so well. Without a shadow of a doubt the words make perfect sense even though they mean absolutely nothing at all. That’s very clever writing, and Roger was extremely good at it!

In an essay included in the first volume of the series Roger remarks that many of his early stories failed to sell. He re-examined them once the white heat of composition had died down and he came to the conclusion that he was over explaining things. So he vowed to tighten his prose in future and to trust his readers more. It certainly seemed to work – the stories he wrote after he made that decision are very tightly constructed. No words are wasted, every one of them matters, no more are needed. And they always repay the very close reading that this tightness often requires.

In her literary biography of Roger, Jane Lindskold records Roger as saying:

My intent has long been to write stories that can be read in many ways from the simple to the complex. I feel that they must be enjoyable simply as stories...even for one who can’t catch any of the allusions.

Almost all the stories in these NESFA volumes have notes at the end which explain the ideas and expand upon the references they contain. This seems so antithetical to Roger’s clearly expressed wishes that I actually felt a little bit uncomfortable reading the notes – they provided far too many explanations of things that really didn’t need explaining. Eventually I decided that they simply weren’t necessary and so I stopped reading them. I just read the stories and the essays and, with slightly less success, the poems (honest, I really did read them!) in the way that Roger intended them to be read, standing on their own two feet. Doubtless I missed a lot of the references – Roger was frighteningly erudite – but I really don’t think it mattered. The context always gave me sufficient clues and I seldom had any real difficulty.

Each of the six books contains an essay by Dr. Christopher S. Kovacs in which he discusses Roger’s personal and professional life during the period of time covered by the volume in question. These essays are quite fascinating and insightful. I learned a lot about Roger that I hadn’t known before. Roger was a very private person, generally reluctant to discuss these kinds of things in public. I treasure an interview with him that I once read:

INTERVIEWER: So tell us about your childhood hangups.

[Crickets. Alan bursts out laughing.]

INTERVIEWER: [After a long pause to get his breath back] Why not?
ROGER: Because I'm a bug on privacy.
ROGER: Some, I suppose. I like to keep my writing apart from my personal life. I make my living displaying pieces of my soul in some distorted form or other. The rest is my own.

Speaking of Science Fiction
Paul Walker, Luna Publications 1987

The entire text of this interview is available, in a slightly different form, in Volume 3 of the NESFA books. If you read it there you will see that I have taken some liberties with it and I’ve slightly misrepresented both interviewer and interviewee, but I decided to let it stand. It’s funnier that way, and I think that Roger might have enjoyed the joke.

Dr. Kovacs put a huge amount of effort into tracking down the material that he used in his essays. He describes it as a massive tapestry or mosaic. He read through, quite literally thousands of letters, documents, and interviews. Many of these were unpublished but were made available to him in collections of Roger’s documents that were held in several university archives. Whenever he found something he thought he could use, he immediately plugged a reference to it into a long Microsoft Word document that was arranged roughly in chronological order. Then he went through the final gigantic document, shifting things around and rewriting them into thematic sub-sections. What started out as a purely literary biography, focusing on how Roger came to write his novels, grew and grew as he fleshed it out with insights he gained into Roger’s personal life.

It must have been an enormous, painstaking and time-consuming task. Dr. Kovacs is to be congratulated on the thoroughness of his research and the depth of his analysis. These essays alone are well worth the price of the books. Everything else is gravy – and believe me, it’s very, very tasty gravy! Roger Zelazny was the first person to teach me that science fiction could be literature and that literature could be science fiction. Those are valuable lessons to learn.

Dan Fesperman’s The Arms Maker of Berlin tells two interlinked stories that together define much of the history of the late twentieth century. In the present day, the industrialist Kurt Bauer is a rich and powerful man. He made his fortune in post war Germany as a manufacturer of just about everything from household appliances to munitions. But he has a dark past, full of secrets that he can’t afford to have exposed. In his youth he was a member of the White Rose, a German resistance movement that opposed the Nazi regime. Historically speaking, the White Rose was never much of a force to be reckoned with – the Gestapo managed to wind it up quite successfully. Very few of its members survived the war. The fact that Kurt Bauer not only survived the war but also prospered in its aftermath is very suspicious in and of itself.

Nat Turnbull is a history professor. He is looking for a cache of documents that might shed some light on the actions of the White Rose.  He is joined in this quest by a young German woman called Berta Heinkel who initially presents herself as just another student but who, as the novel progresses, turns out to have rather deeper motives. Her family, it seems, had connections to the White Rose and through those connections to Kurt Bauer himself.

Kurt Bauer is well aware of Turnbull’s interest and he is not pleased by it. When he was 17 years old, Bauer fell in love with one Liesl Folkerts. It was she who recruited him into the White Rose. Unfortunately for the organisation, Bauer found that his love for Liesl trumped his political idealism and his attempts to get closer to Liesl had disastrous consequences for both the resistance and for Liesl herself. Should the history of the White Rose and of what Kurt Bauer did to his comrades ever come to light, it is likely to ruin both his reputation and his industrial empire. He has a lot to be ashamed of in his past. So he and his powerful friends set out to try and keep their secrets safe. Consequently it isn’t long before Nat Turnbull finds himself in a great deal of trouble indeed.

Both stories – Turnbull's and Bauer's – are so deftly told that it is very hard to know where fact ends and fiction begins. The sections dealing with the White Rose and with the Allied espionage operations in Nazi Germany during the war are vividly brought to life and they make dramatic use of actual historical characters such as the German anti-Hitler theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was one of the inspirations for the White Rose, and the American spymaster Allen Dulles who, from the safety of his headquarters in Switzerland ran agents inside Nazi Germany. Touches like these lend the story an amazing air of verisimilitude.

But what truly makes this novel so enthralling is Fesperman's awareness of just how the calamitous history of Germany in the twentieth century continues to inform current events. Without Germany’s rise and fall and subsequent rise again, the world would be a very different place. Even German reunification at the start of the nineties coloured much of what came later in European political history. Bauer’s dubious past and the part he played in all of this may be fictional but it isn’t necessarily all that unusual. Fesperman brilliantly describes the cynicism that turned post-war Germany into a political and commercial force to be reckoned with. Bauer’s part in all this is perhaps allegorical but that doesn’t make it untrue.

And as a bonus, Fesperman manages to tell an absorbing and page-turning story as well.

Simon Scarrow’s novel Dead of Night is also set in Nazi Germany. It is the second in his series about Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke, though it stands alone quite nicely and you don’t have to have read the first book to appreciate this one.

The story takes place in the early months of 1940. One freezing night, SS doctor Manfred Schmesle and his wife return from an evening spent mingling with their fellow Nazis at a concert. Manfred retires to his study to do some work and his wife goes to bed. Some time in the small hours of the morning she is woken by a sharp cracking noise. When she goes to investigate, she finds her husband lying dead in a pool of blood. He has been shot in the head.

The official verdict is suicide but his wife remains unconvinced. Ruth Frenkel, a friend of the Schmesle family and also a friend of Schenke’s, persuades Schenke to re-open the investigation. He is reluctant to do so. He has his hands full investigating a forgery ring that is making a fortune from the distribution of very convincing looking ration books. However as a favour to Ruth, he agrees to look into the case. He quickly comes to the conclusion that the official verdict is incorrect. It seems very likely that Manfred Schmesle was murdered. But before the investigation has a chance to get off the ground, Schenke gets a phone call from Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SS himself, warning Schenke in no uncertain terms to let the suicide verdict lie unchallenged. There will be no investigation into Manfred Schmesle’s death. Schenke knows very well which side his political bread is buttered on, and so he drops the investigation.

Then Schenke meets the American journalist, William Shirer, and learns from him about the death of a young child, Greta Scholz, who supposedly died of pneumonia at the Schiller Clinic in Potsdam. Shirer’s investigations suggest that Greta is not the first child to have died there. It turns out that all the dead children were disabled, either physically, or mentally or both. There have been far too many deaths at the clinic for them to have been anything other than deliberate. What kind of monster would deliberately kill a child? What possible motive could they have? Shirer, as a foreigner, is unable to make any further headway into the case. He asks Schenke for help. At first, Schenke can’t see any way to into the case, but then he discovers that Manfred Schmesle, before his death, had worked for the organisation that is running Schiller Clinic. The pieces of both jigsaw puzzles start to fall into place.

Nowadays, of course, everybody knows all about Nazi Germany’s persecutions of the Jews. But the holocaust was not the only racial policy that the Nazis implemented in their misguided pursuit of Aryan racial purity. Schenke comes to realise that he has stumbled on an operation inspired by the so-called science of eugenics. It is a deliberate attempt to remove so-called defective people from the population so that they can never reproduce. Thus, over time, the race will be strengthened as the weaker elements are purged from it.

Schenke and his police colleagues are thoroughly appalled by what they find as they pursue the inquiry. Politics be damned, there are some crimes that are simply beyond the pale. Schenke, at no small risk to himself, manages to persuade Heydrich that there is a strong case for pursuing both  Schmesle’s death and the death of the children who had been placed in his care. After that, things start to get … interesting.

Scarrow perfectly captures the taut atmosphere and paranoia of life in Nazi Germany. He never makes the mistake of painting the Nazi hierarchy as a simplistic black and white caricature. There are always shades of grey to consider. It’s called Realpolitik (not surprisingly, the word derives directly from the German). Even the most regimented and regulated of societies is nuanced, and ideology always takes second place to pragmatism, particularly when there is a political advantage to be gained. Hence Heydrich’s change of mind.

The novel’s plot is cleverly worked out and the tension never lets up.  I am keenly looking forward to many more volumes in this series.

The Twyford Code is an epistolary novel by Janice Hallett. Initially, at least, the sections are presented to us as transcripts of a set of 200 audio files that have been extracted from an old iPhone. The files were recorded over several months by one Steven Smith, an ex-convict who has just been released after serving eleven years in prison. Steven tells us about his early childhood, how he and his older brother Colin were abandoned by their parents and how. at the age of fourteen, he simply stopped going to school after the mysterious disappearance of his remedial English teacher, Miss Isles, during a field trip to Bournemouth. Once he left school, Steven fell in with a bad crowd who led him into a life of crime and ultimately to a lengthy prison sentence.

From the files we learn that when he was a young boy, Steven found a book on a bus. The book was a novel by one Edith Twyford, from context an obvious Enid Blyton clone. Janice Hallett has a lot of fun with this idea and The Twyford Code contains several utterly delicious Enid Blyton pastiches.

Steven takes the book to school and shows it to Miss Isles. She explains to the class that Edith Twyford’s books are very hard to find nowadays because her stories are considered to be simplistic, racist and xenophobic (shades of Enid Blyton again). Nevertheless, Miss Isles decides to read the book to the class because it had been her favourite book when she herself was a little girl – and soon the children are completely caught up in the excitement of the story.

The audio files reveal that Miss Isles herself was quite certain that the book contained codes, clues to a puzzle that might lead to great real-life revelations. She takes the class on a field trip to Bournemouth to seek a solution – and then Miss Isles vanishes, never to be seen again. What happened to her? How did the children get back home after she abandoned them?

Once this scene is set for us, Steven revisits his past with the help of his former remedial English classmates and together they set out to try and solve the mystery of Miss Isles’ disappearance once and for all. The audio files record the details of their quest and what they find along the way. And all the while Steven continues to study Edith Twyford’s book intently, always finding within it wilder and wilder codes and clues to increasingly complex and paranoid conspiracies.

Once we have listened to all 200 audio files the story starts to change viewpoints. Now we read letters from, and listen to conversations between, people who actually knew Steven. Together they try to make sense of the audio files he left behind. And that is when we finally find out what the book is really all about. It isn’t about secret codes embedded in an old children’s book at all, though they do have a significant role to play in the real story that has been hidden from us up until now. The revelations come thick and fast and furious and I’m not going to tell you anything whatsoever about them because that would be the spoilerest of all spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a stunningly creative and clever story in which Janice Hallett managed to both pull the wool over my eyes and pull the rug out from under my feet at one and the same time leaving me blind and suspended in mid-air. It is a breathtakingly ingenious book.

Janice Hallett plays perfectly fair with her readers. All the clues as to what is really going on are there, hidden from view in plain sight. But I guarantee that you’ll never spot them until the whole story explodes in your head at the end.

Bob Brier is an American Egyptologist with a special interest in mummies and the mummification process itself. In 1994, Brier put his knowledge to good use and became the first person in more than 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver using only the techniques of the ancient Egyptian embalmers. Now that shows true professional dedication! His book Tutankhamun And The Tomb That Changed The World, published as part of the celebrations of the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, is an utterly fascinating account of both Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb and also of the life and times of  Tutankhamun himself. Bob Brier has a light and breezy writing style and an enviable ability to make complex ideas clear and easy to understand. I learned heaps about ancient Egyptian society, modern Egyptian society, archaeology in general and the personality of Howard Carter himself (a poisonous man and a bit of an idiot). And, of course, I learned how to make a mummy...

Amusingly, reading this book shed a lot of light on Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels. Many of the same characters and situations appear in both. Or perhaps it might be fairer to say that Elizabeth Peters’ novels gave me more understanding of the places and people that Bob Brier described. Which is the chicken and which is the egg? I’m sure I don’t know. But I’m very sure that I thoroughly enjoyed Bob Brier’s book.

Shaun Bythell’s Ishigurovian book Remainders of the Day is another instalment of his diary detailing his day to day life as the proprietor of a second hand bookshop. Each monthly section is prefaced by an epigraph taken from R. M. Williamson’s Bits from an Old Bookshop which was published in 1904. Bythell is writing more than a century after Williamson, but it’s amazing how little bookselling has changed during those years. Apart from the advent of Huge South American River Goddess With Only One Breast of course. A considerable number of Bythell’s diary entries discuss his ongoing battles with the behemoth. Apparently he has fallen foul of some stubborn algorithm or other and as a result his account has been suspended. No matter what he tries, he cannot bring it back to life. His emails are largely ignored and the specific department that he needs to contact is not on the phone and appears to have no actual email address of its own either. Perhaps it only understand smoke signals fuelled by the fires of frustration. On the vanishingly rare occasions that Bythell’s emails are actually answered, the answer invariably comes from a robot and consists of completely useless boilerplate. Eventually Bythell simply gave up. He never sold very many books through the damned organisation anyway. So who needs them?

The daily entries within each month always start with the number of online orders he received and the number he managed to fill. These two numbers are not always the same. Books are very good at hiding themselves. By this stage Bythell’s only online presence is via Abe Books, so the number of orders tends to be very small anyway. At the end of each day he tells us how many customers he had in the shop and how much money he put into the till. Both these numbers also tend to be quite small. Clearly he will never be a rich man. In between reporting these statistics, he tells us all about his eccentric customers, his interactions with shop helpers and friends, his book buying trips and the simple joys of a day spent out on the river just fishing,  It’s a winning formula – this is the third time he’s done it and the result is as amusing and as delightful as ever.

Roger Zelazny The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny
Volume 1 – Threshold NESFA
Volume 2 – Power & Light NESFA
Volume 3 – This Mortal Mountain NESFA
Volume 4 – Last Exit to Babylon NESFA
Volume 5 – Nine Black Doves NESFA
Volume 6 – The Road to Amber NESFA
Bibliography – The Ides of Octember NESFA
Dan Fesperman The Arms Maker of Berlin Knopf
Simon Scarrow Dead of Night Headline
Janice Hallett The Twyford Code Atria
Bob Brier Tutankhamun And The Tomb That Changed The World Oxford University Press
Shaun Bythell Remainders of the Day Profile Books
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