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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (nellimus elephanta)

I Bid No Trumps

Joe Lansdale’s new novel The Donut Legion opens with the narrator receiving a visit from his ex-wife. They chat in a friendly way about this and that and then she says,  "Watch out for omelets. And beware the great mound within the circle."

He goes to wrap a blanket around her so that she can keep herself warm because the night air is very cold, but she isn’t there any more. He didn’t see her leave, she just isn’t there. Has he seen a ghost? And why are omelets so potentially dangerous? The great mound within the circle is easy to understand – local rumour says that an alien spaceship crashed and was buried there. A QAnon inspired saucer cult has risen around it and a charismatic preacher has used it several times to predict that the end of the world is nigh and an alien inspired Second Coming is imminent; though so far, whenever the predicted date has arrived absolutely nothing has happened. But that might change in the future – faith and belief conquers all and sooner or later all things will come to pass.

It isn’t long before the narrator finds himself at odds with the conspiracy theorists and much bigotry-inspired mayhem ensues.

The story is a fairly routine thud and blunder thriller enlivened with Lansdale’s usual gallery of grotesque characters, not all of whom are human and not all of whom are even definitely alive – when the narrator meets his ex-wife again later in the story he comes straight out and asks her if she is dead. She says, "I don’t know."

The theme of the novel is larger than the rather routine story might at first suggest. Quite early on, Lansdale has his narrator remark that:

Around here, you say ‘God’ or ‘guns,’ wave the flag or the Bible, you can get away with anything,
even if you’re waving it while you’ve got your finger up a chicken’s ass.

It is quite clear that Lansdale does not approve of what he sees American society turning into. Using god, guns and unthinking patriotism as the three legs that define and support societal values makes Lansdale (and me) feel very uneasy indeed. Nevertheless that is the direction that both Lansdale and I see the world in general, and America in particular, heading towards. And it’s a very small step from there to a regime that starts to impose its values by force on to everybody around them. All you have to do is pass a law and then make sure to enforce it, with god and guns. And flags.

Lansdale makes the point that the conspiracy theory believers are largely uneducated people to whom faith and belief will always trump (no pun intended) fact and logic. They put their trust in charismatic leaders who they believe are telling them the truth, a truth that everybody else is hiding from them. Having been enlightened, they then refuse to accept anything that contradicts what their leaders tell them no matter how ridiculous the message might seem to outsiders. And these leaders, in the novel at least (make your own judgements about real life), are portrayed as cynical manipulators who get rich and powerful by controlling a cult that they themselves do not really believe in but which they can manipulate for their own ends. The novel explicitly invokes Donald Trump, anti-vaccine and anti-masking conspiracies.  The story is all very cynical and very depressing.

By the end of the book we have found out just why omelets are so dangerous and why the narrator keeps having conversations with his ex-wife who may or may not be dead. I can’t say much more about omelets without venturing into spoiler territory but the reason why the ex-wife is hanging around turns out to be both mundane and mystical at one and the same time, which I found very satisfying indeed.

The Donut Legion is very minor Lansdale – the story simply isn’t strong enough or interesting enough to do justice to its theme and the theme itself is a rather tired and obvious one. We see it acted out every day in the news. And that too is a very depressing thought.

After I finished The Donut Legion I re-read the four volumes that make up Vonda McIntyre’s Starfarers series for no very good reason except that I felt like it. I hadn’t read the books since they were first published way back in the late 1980s and I’d largely forgotten the details. On re-reading them, I was astonished to find some interesting parallels between McIntyre’s story and Lansdale's novel. Starfarers (as the first volume is called) was published long before the excesses of Trumpism darkened the world and Vonda herself died in 2019 so she never saw any of the egregious nonsense engendered by the covid / vaccine / masking conspiracies. Nevertheless in this first novel she envisages a very conservative, "Christian" faith based, profoundly anti-intellectual and quite paranoid American government whose values correspond closely to those explored in Joe Lansdale's 2023 novel. Lansdale, of course, was simply reporting what he saw all around him every day in the here and now. Vonda – in true science fictional style – extrapolated from what she saw in the 1980s and came to exactly the same conclusion that Lansdale would reach several decades later. Clearly the trend must have been already visible back then, though very few people spotted it. Full marks to Vonda McIntyre’s insight!

Starfarers has perhaps the oddest genesis of any SF series. Vonda was taking part in a panel discussion about science fiction shows on television. She became quite annoyed and exasperated by one panellist who was consistently very negative about all television SF shows, refusing to see any merit whatsoever in any of them. So, in order to prove that science fiction on television could actually be a very positive thing, she started describing a TV show that she’d seen called Starfarers. Very few people had ever seen it, she explained, because the scheduling of it was so bad, but she urged her audience and fellow panellists to seek it out because it really was superb. There was no such show, of course – Vonda was just making up the details on the fly, pulling the story out of thin air as she went along. History does not record whether or not she managed to convince her fellow panellists  of the validity of her point of view, but Vonda herself was so impressed by what she’d heard herself saying that she later turned her talk into what eventually became a series of four very complex and insightful books. For the rest of her life she described the Starfarers novels as "[the] Best SF TV Series Never Made".

The eponymous Starfarer is a starship funded and built by an international consortium. The crew come from here, there and everywhere, though a large number of them are from America. The starship’s mission is regarded as being primarily research – they hope to find and investigate alien life – and administratively the ship is structured like a university because, in the final analysis, that is exactly what it is.

The ship is equipped with magnetic grapples that will attach it to a cosmic string. Once Starfarer is latched on to the string, the energies embedded in the string will immediately transition the ship to the string’s other end. There is only one cosmic string in the solar system and its other end terminates in the Tau Ceti system. So therefore, having no other choice, that is where Starfarer is going to go. (The placement of the string turns out not to be a coincidence, but we don’t find that out until a later volume).

The first novel introduces us to the characters who will play a large part in the development of the story and of its themes. Not all the characters are completely human – scientific advances have made it possible for humans to alter their genetic makeup and one of the characters is a diver, an amphibian derived from a modified human genome who spends almost all his time living in the sea, swimming and playing with orca. Such altered humans are genuinely a separate species in their own right. They always breed true.

The book also explores some interesting social arrangements. The alien contact team, perhaps the most important people on the ship given its declared mission, live together as a loosely coupled family. Two other people later join this family and are warmly accepted. It’s not particularly a sexual relationship (though it can be, should the situation arise), it’s more a group of people drawn together by overlapping interests and mutual respect. The relationship reminds me very much of the Maori concept of whanau which is usually translated as extended family, though there’s rather more to it than that. Members of a whanau are not necessarily related by blood. I’m fascinated by the fact that Vonda came up with this idea and used it so convincingly since, as far as I am aware, she visited New Zealand only once in her life, in 1995, long after the Starfarer novels had all been published. Perhaps she based the idea on Kurt Vonnegut’s concept of a karass, which is similarly defined as being a network or group of people who are somehow affiliated or linked in a spiritual fashion. Either way, she makes the idea work brilliantly well. It is one of the major strengths of the story.

The American government is becoming increasingly suspicious of Starfarer. The government is conservative, religiously motivated and highly sceptical of scientific research because the results of such research are open ended, undefined and, in the last analysis, probably sacrilegious. The government has planted agents in the ship whose sole purpose is to undermine its mission (though later one of them has a change of heart which proves to be both a life and a mission saver). The American government is extremely paranoid and eventually it announces that it is going to re-purpose Starfarer as an orbital observatory to spy on its military rivals. It has no right to do this – it doesn’t own Starfarer – but that doesn’t stop it from trying. The escalating situation culminates with the Americans sending a military vessel to take over Starfarer by force. Because they now have no other choice, the crew of Starfarer "steal" the ship, inadvertently kidnapping a lot of visitors who are given no opportunity to return to Earth before Starfarer departs. The American government’s ship fires a missile which hits Starfarer just as the ship grapples with the cosmic string and enters transition. So Starfarer arrives at Tau Ceti together with a nuclear explosion caused by the missile. This is interpreted as a show of belligerent force by the aliens and it does not endear Starfarer’s crew to them at all…

Taken as a whole, the quartet of novels explores two major themes. Much is made of the alien societies that Starfarer discovers but even more is made of the conflicts that arise between the people on board the ship. Not everybody wants to be on Starfarer, and not everybody agrees with the aims of the mission. Some people are ideologically on the side of the American government (indeed, two of them are American senators who were on a "fact finding" mission when Starfarer raced away ahead of schedule and attached itself to the cosmic string), some of them have family ties to Earth and bitterly resent that Starfarer has effectively isolated them from their home and some of them remain ambivalent. The friction between these disparate groups is what gives these novels much of their subtlety and their depth. Certainly the alien societies are cleverly presented – Nemo the squidmoth is one of the most convincing aliens I have ever encountered – but it is the human reactions to what they find in their explorations of the star systems and of themselves that makes these books so insightful. I suspect they might be the best things that Vonda McIntyre ever wrote.

Officially David Gerrold’s trilogy of novels Jumping Off the Planet, Bouncing Off the Moon and Leaping to the Stars are collectively known as The Far Side of the Sky and they have been published in an omnibus volume under that title. But because the family whose story the books tell have the surname Dingillian, the books are generally referred to as The Dingilliad, a very clever and very satisfying pun. Unfortunately that’s pretty much the only clever and satisfying thing about the books.

The trilogy is cast very much in the mould of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels but, as is usually the case with these kinds of things, Heinlein did it a lot better. The novels are extraordinarily didactic and the characters spend far too much time lecturing each other about politics, sociology, economics and engineering. If all the interminable lectures were reduced to their essentials (or better, eliminated entirely) the three fairly hefty novels would probably turn into one rather slim novella. There really is a rather good story hiding in these pages but hunting it out is such a tedious task that it’s probably not worth the effort. At one point, early in the first novel, the poisonous main characters actually get told just how thoroughly obnoxious and annoying they are (which I found oddly satisfying). So clearly David Gerrold knew exactly what effect he was creating in the minds of his readers but he decided to carry on doing it anyway because he was in love with the sound of his own voice and he simply didn’t care that nobody else was. As far as I am concerned that was a very poor decision…

Some two or three hundred years from now the Dingillian children together with their father are running away from their manipulative and narcissistic mother. As it turns out, they soon find themselves caught between Scylla and Charybdis (to continue with the classical allusions) because their father proves to be just as dysfunctional as their mother, perhaps even more so. They run first to a beanstalk station and from there to the moon and then on to a colony in the stars, discussing everything they see along the way at great length and with far too much tedious detail.

That’s the story. Everything else is window dressing and bits of business. The court case where one of the children divorces himself from his parents has its lively moments and there are one or two others as well, but they are few and far between. You see, ennui to quote the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. I advise you to read these books in bed at night. They will help you fall sleep.

A House with Good Bones is another utterly delightful novel from the pseudonymous T. Kingfisher. The novel is narrated in the first person by one Samantha Montgomery, known to one and all as Sam. Sam is a very successful archaeoentomologist – a word I don’t recall ever having come across before I read this book. Fortunately Sam is well aware of the obscurity of her profession and she loses no time in telling us that her job is to identify and classify the insect remains that are found in archaeological digs. Creepy or crawly, it makes no difference. Sam loves them all.

The dig she is currently working on has been temporarily suspended and so Sam takes the opportunity to go and visit her mother who is currently living in the house where her own late mother, Sam’s grandmother once lived. The house is on Lammergeier Lane which might explain why Sam arrives to find a vulture perched on the mailbox. As the story progresses, Sam gets to know the vulture quite well – his name is Hermes and he might be the familiar of someone who might be a witch who lives just up the road. Hermes will have a vital part to play in the resolution of the plot.

Sam is somewhat surprised to find that Edith, her mother, has lost a lot of weight and that she has got rid of the bright colours she was once so fond of. She has repainted the walls of the house in an off white colour that was Sam’s grandmother’s favourite. Edith refuses to let Sam voice any criticism of her late grandmother, something Sam finds rather disquieting because there was a time when she and Edith were in close agreement about the miserable old woman’s nasty nature. Edith has also hung a fairly racist picture over the fireplace, a picture that both Sam and her mother have always strongly disliked but of which Sam’s grandmother was always inordinately fond.

And then Sam finds a jar full of teeth buried in the garden after which, of course, everything starts to fall apart...

Sam is utterly delightful. She is witty, often laugh out loud funny, and full of arcane knowledge about the (sometimes quite revolting) habits of insects. Even when things start to turn to custard and it seems likely that her grandmother may be hell bent on destroying both the family and the house, her wry observations about what is going on are a constant delight. Both Sam and her mother are addicted to drinking boxed wine and watching British detective stories on the television. Invariably they fail to guess whodunnit. These habits make Sam less than qualified to understand what is going on around her. Fortunately she has a lot of help from her friends and when the situation deteriorates into pure gothic horror she will definitely need all the help that she can get.

Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a spellbinding novel that moves seamlessly between contemporary times and the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century.

As the story opens, we meet Connie Goodwin defending her thesis on colonial American history in an oral exam. She finds it a harrowing experience, but she does well, and passes with flying colours. She intends to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. However her studies are interrupted by her mother, a typical 1960s counter culture dropout, much addicted to meditation and holistic New-Age woo-woo, who asks Connie to help with the sale of her (Connie's) grandmother's abandoned and derelict home near Salem. Connie feels that her mother is far too detached from reality to be able to handle the task herself and so, somewhat reluctantly, she agrees to see what she can do. Searching through the house, Connie discovers an ancient key hidden inside a seventeenth-century Bible. Embedded in the key is a yellowing fragment of parchment. Written on the parchment is the name Deliverance Dane.

Being a good historian, Connie decides to try and find out everything she can about the mysterious Deliverance Dane. If she’s lucky, what she discovers may dovetail nicely with her thesis, and that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it? As she follows contradictory clues and tracks down and searches through dusty old manuscripts held in obscure archives, she finds allusions to something called a "Physick Book" which appears on the one hand to be a manual of medicine used by knowledgeable women in the colonial era, and on the other hand perhaps it might be a book of spells. There are suggestions that the book has been passed down through Deliverance’s descendants. Perhaps it still exists. Perhaps Connie can find it. If she can, she will certainly gain a lot of Brownie points with her supervisor (though it later turns out that, unknown to Connie, her supervisor has his own agenda to do with the Physick book).

At intervals throughout Connie’s quest, the novel flashes back to scenes from Deliverance’s life. We see her as a wise woman, a healer. And we see her accused of witchcraft and sentenced to death. These scenes are beautifully written, magnificently invoking daily life in seventeenth century Salem. You can smell it, taste it and feel it. The whole thing adds spice and flavour to Connie’s quest. Towards the end of the novel we learn that Connie’s discoveries have started to build an arcane connection between herself and Deliverance Dane. The story segues into a rather clever fantasy…

I read this book with open mouthed fascination. I simply couldn’t put it down. Deliverance’s travails in Salem were chillingly convincing and Connie’s searches through dusty archives and her application of the knowledge that she found there were utterly gripping. There were occasional hiccups – an important plot point revolves around the fact that in the seventeenth century the words receipt and recipe were synonyms. Connie is an expert on the history of that time and has, presumably, read widely on the subject. And yet she is quite unaware of that fact. I found her lack of knowledge about this difficult to accept – I am by no means an expert on those times (though I’ve read a fair bit of Defoe and I’ve dipped in to the diaries of Samuel Pepys) but I knew that the words were interchangeable. So why didn’t she?

But in the final analysis, such criticisms are minor cavils at best. The book is a tour de force and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I guarantee that it will grab hold of you and it will refuse to let you go all the way up to its nail-bitingly dramatic conclusion.

Egyptomania is the neologistic title of a book by Bob Brier, a world-renowned Egyptologist and a self confessed Egyptomaniac in his own right. A large part of the book is taken up with Brier’s own never ending obsession with hunting down, and paying far too much money for, artefacts with some (sometimes very slight) connection with Egyptian history. Along the way Brier has managed to track down some truly amazing items along with a huge amount of complete tat. His collection is an eclectic mix of objects – jewellery, private letters from Howard Carter (the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb), tobacco packaging, books, posters, an ornate Josiah Wedgwood Egyptian tea-set, a Barbie doll (Barbie of the Nile), a cheap King Tut cologne bottle and the sheet music and words to the songs Old King Tut Was A Wise Old Nut and Cleopatra Had A Jazz Band. It’s all grist to the Egyptomaniacal mill. In Brier’s own words, "We all know that something can be so bad that it’s good. The true collector has no shame."

His book traces the history of the world’s fascination with all things Egyptian. Brier claims that the obsession starts with the Greek historian Herodotus who visited Egypt round about 450BC. Even then Egypt was old, its glory days long behind it. Almost as much time separated Herodotus from the builders of the pyramids at the peak of Egypt’s power as separates you and me from Herodotus himself. Thinking about such spans of time makes my head hurt – it’s only a few thousand years but nevertheless I find it hard to grasp the ramifications of it.

The Romans, greatly influenced by Greek culture, continued with this obsession, adopting Egyptian gods, mummifying their Roman dead, and seducing Egypt’s queen. Centuries later, Napoleon spread Egyptomania throughout Europe. Bonaparte himself was such an obsessive Egyptomaniac that he commissioned a gaggle of French savants to write an exhaustive twenty volume Encyclopedia explaining all things Egyptian which, unfortunately he himself did not live to see published. Later, with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in the 1920s, Egyptomania became a worldwide phenomenon, spawning no end of bizarre, Egyptian-themed ephemera, books, novels, movies and plays which Brier takes a gleeful delight in detailing for us.

The ancient Egyptians themselves had a habit of raising obelisks, enormous stone pillars inscribed with hieroglyphs to commemorate this, that or the other important event. In the nineteenth century the Egyptian government, almost bankrupt and sorely in need of allies, offered obelisks to Britain, France and America in the hope of currying favour. How do you move a two hundred feet tall stone pillar safely across half a world? It’s a pretty problem and Brier devotes several chapters to explaining the ingenious solutions that the engineers came up with. They clearly succeeded because today the obelisks stand proudly in their new homes for anyone to admire, but getting them there was fraught with difficulty and sadly several people lost their lives in the attempt. Brier became so obsessed with the details of obelisk manoeuvring that he later wrote a whole book about it – Cleopatra’s Needles – which expanded upon the material he presents in this book.

I devoured Egyptomania avidly. It is light-hearted, serious, erudite, silly and genuinely fascinating.

Joe R. Lansdale The Donut Legion Mulholland Books
Vonda McIntyre Starfarers Spectra
Vonda McIntyre Transition Spectra
Vonda McIntyre Metaphase Spectra
Vonda McIntyre Nautilus Spectra
David Gerrold Jumping Off the Planet Tor
David Gerrold Bouncing Off the Moon Tor
David Gerrold Leaping to the Stars Tor
T. Kingfisher A House With Good Bones Tor
Katherine Howe The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane Hyperion
Bob Brier Egyptomania St. Martin's Press
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