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wot I red on my hols by alan robson ( excrementium ex infelicissimus)

Tales of a Travelling Man

This all started with what I thought at the time was an incredible piece of good luck. I really should have known better.

I was booked to fly on the 6.30pm flight from Wellington to Auckland. However I finished my business in Wellington remarkably early and so I headed straight out to the airport. I arrived there about 12.45pm and approached the man at the check in desk.

"Is there any chance of an earlier flight?"

He clattered on his keyboard for a while and stared gloomily at the result on the screen. "Well the 1.30pm flight is full," he said. "But I can get you on the 3.00pm one. Will that be OK?"

"Perfect," I said. "Let’s do it." And so it was done.

He printed out my boarding pass and attached baggage tags to my luggage. "Is it OK to check the bags in now?" I asked. "The 1.30 flight hasn’t gone yet."

"Oh yes," he reassured me. "There’s a separate trolley for each flight and yours will go on the 3.00pm trolley. We won’t send it on the 1.30 flight because it is a security risk to send unaccompanied baggage on the flight and it’s against regulations. After all – it could be a bomb!"

I saw the wisdom of this. "OK, thanks for that."

He attached priority stickers to the bags and I watched them vanish down the conveyor belt. I went up to the lounge and indulged in all manner of hedonistic luxuries until, jaded and exhausted, I was called to board my 3.00pm flight to Auckland.

The flight was uneventful, and after it landed I trotted off to the baggage claim area. I watched the bags circle round on the conveyor. Mine were noticeably absent. I consoled myself with the thought that perhaps the priority sticker had come off and since they were first on, they were bound to be last off. I waited a while longer and watched the bags circulate. It was almost hypnotic. After about 40 minutes there was only one bag remaining and it wasn’t mine. There is always one lonely bag remaining after everyone collects their luggage. It never belongs to anyone. I think the baggage handlers use it to seed the conveyor belt.

The baggage enquiry office is just to the left of the conveyor. The door was locked. I banged frantically on it for a while but nobody came. I went over to the check in desk and managed to catch the eye of one of the staff. I explained my predicament.

She was deeply sympathetic. "I‘m not allowed to leave the desk," she said. "But I’ll phone my manager." She phoned. Nobody answered. She chewed her lip. "I’ll try somebody else." She dialled another number. Nobody answered. "I’ll call the airport manager." She dialled again. Still nobody answered. She cast her eyes around wildly, searching for inspiration. "Oh," she said. "There’s my manager." She pointed to a distinguished looking gentleman who had just appeared from behind a screen. She waved and whistled and he gave her a horrified look and vanished behind his screen again.

I went back and kicked the door of the baggage enquiry office. It was still locked, but a man with a badge noticed me banging on it and materialised by my side.

"Can I help you sir?" he enquired snootily. I explained again what had happened. "Let’s take a look in the baggage collection section, shall we?" he said.

We went through into the area where the luggage is unloaded on to the conveyor. My bags were lying forgotten in a corner. "There they are!" I cried and hurried to collect them.

"Oh THOSE bags," said the man. "I remember those. They came on the 1.30 flight and nobody claimed them, so we left them here."

I pointed to the flight number on the baggage label. "That’s not the flight number of the 1.30 plane is it?" I asked.

"Er, no. No it isn’t."

"So my bags were loaded on the wrong plane, they travelled all the way here unaccompanied, thereby breaking every security regulation in the book?"

"Er, yes. If you want to put it like that."

"How do you know there wasn’t a bomb in the bags?" I demanded. "How do you know that the passenger who checked them in wasn’t a terrorist intent on mayhem? Do you realise that if you continue to ignore your own security regulations, sooner or later you will end up with a lot of dead people? Why do you make it so easy for the bad guys? Are you deliberately asking to have your planes bombed?"

"Oh, that kind of thing never happens in New Zealand." He looked smug, and terribly complacent.

I took my bags and left him to it. You can’t talk to people who have nothing but empty space in their skull. Anyway, after that incident, nothing else could possibly go wrong…

Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven is a collection of Avram Davidson ephemera. They are profoundly Jewish stories originally published (for the most part) in small press Jewish magazines. They have a certain interest (they are by Avram Davidson after all, and they exhibit all of his many stylistic and plotting idiosyncrasies), but none-jews will find them hard to appreciate.

Tim Powers new novel Declare is his first since 1997. It is a John Le Carré / Len Deighton spy story. In many ways it is peculiarly British, involving as it does the secret life and secret deeds of Kim Philby; multiple agent extraordinaire. There’s an odd frisson engendered by the thought of an American author writing about one of the quintessentially British treacheries of the last half of the twentieth century (Philby’s duplicity had ramifications that are still not fully explored). To be fair, Powers does it well. Unusually for an American he captures the British character and the social mores of the time superbly. The plot has the usual pleasing complexity associated with novels of this genre and it held me absolutely enthralled. However it does have a tendency to fall apart once the supernatural elements are introduced and the culminating scenes on Mount Ararat fail to convince. It turns into an uneasy genre crossover novel and on balance I think I prefer my tonic straight, without the djinn that Powers pours in so liberally.

In The Burning City, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle visit Niven’s old stamping grounds. We are back in a world of semi-scientific magic. The magic is powered by the naturally occurring force mana. But the mana is fading and the great magicians are all historical figures. Magic is thin in the ground these days. The story is set after the fall of Atlantis in a city on the West coast of a large continent. The city isn’t called Los Angeles, but if you felt like giving it that name, nobody would blame you. Teenage gangs and racial tensions predominate and the novel is merely a moral tract with fantasy window-dressing that preaches about the problems of contemporary LA (and by extension contemporary America) and proposes simplistic solutions driven by naïve sociology and right wing politics. We’ve heard it all before. Dull, dull, dull!

Ripping Time is the first novel in a two part series (I suppose we probably ought to call it a dualogy or perhaps a diptych). It is a novel in the Time Scout series and if you haven’t read the earlier books you may find the plot of the contemporary sections more than a little confusing. Fortunately most of it is irrelevant to the main thrust of the action which takes place in nineteenth century London. A time tour has been arranged to view the murders of Jack the Ripper. Scholars and the general public alike are excited by the prospect. An old mystery will be solved; who was Jack the Ripper and what were his motives?

The authors base much of the action (and the explanation of the murders) on The Diaries of Jack the Ripper which was published about three years ago. It was supposedly a diary discovered in the papers of James Maybrick, a merchant from Liverpool in which he confessed to the murders. Most scholars find the provenance of the diary dubious, but that’s no reason for ignoring it in a novel (indeed, it’s a damn good reason for using it in a novel) and Asprin and Evans go to town with it.

The sections of the novel set in nineteenth century London are brilliantly portrayed, and the tension had me on the edge of my seat. Unfortunately the book is marred by an extremely contrived soap-opera sub plot involving the kidnapping of prominent people from the Time Gate society, extremely boring Time Gate politics, and great blundering lumps of thundering melodrama. If they’d cut all that out and stuck to Jack the Ripper this would have been a first class book. As it is, I found myself skipping over the boring bits, eager to get back to the London fogs, the terrible deaths and the enigma of Jack the Ripper’s motives. Given that the ratio between the two plot lines is about two contemporary politics to one Ripper, the book quickly becomes tedious. There is a sequel (The House that Jack Built) sitting on my shelf waiting to be read, but I feel little motivation to pick it up.

A day and a half after the potentially very serious incident with my luggage I was back at the airport to catch a plane to Rotorua. I was booked on the 4.30pm flight. I generally arrive early for my flights so that I can indulge in enormous libertine excesses in the luxury lounge. I got to the airport at about 3.00pm. I looked at the departures board.

Yes, there it was. Rotorua; 4.30pm. As I watched, the board twitched, shuddered and refreshed itself. Now it said: Rotorua; 4.30pm. Cancelled.

Cancelled? I went to the check in desk.

"Engineering requirements, sir. The flight has been cancelled and you have been rebooked on the 6.30pm flight. Sorry for the inconvenience."

I have never heard a man sound less sorry. The luxury lounge with its free food, drink, sex, drugs and even rock and roll couldn’t quite make up for this. Fortunately I had lots of good books to read. I arrived very late in Rotorua, a raddled, dissipated shadow of my former self, decadent fluids dripping from every pore. The thermal areas steamed, the geysers geysed, the mud pools went glup in unison as they played complicated baroque music. Nothing worse could happen to me now…

Neal Barrett Jr is weird. That’s a pretty good recommendation from my point of view, though others might not agree. Three of his novels passed across my eyeballs this month.

The Prophecy Machine, despite it’s rather surreal sounding plot is very approachable and the story is quite straightforward. On the island of Makasar, Hatters walk the streets during the day jabbing pointy sticks into bystanders. But the night belongs to the Hooters who set fire to people and things. Finn the Lizard Maker (who owns a very cynical and sarcastic lizard called Julia) is trapped in Makasar and seems certain to fall foul of one of the sects. And now the story really starts.

It’s a kind of mixture of Jack Vance (beautifully described and fully realised eccentric societies) and A. E. Van Vogt (paranoia as a way of life) if you can imagine such a thing. I must confess I couldn’t until I read this book. Sequels are promised; I look forward to them with eagerness.

However The Hereafter Gang, despite it’s seemingly straightforward plot is much more bizarre. It doesn’t become clear until half way through the book, but Doug Hoover is dead and his journey through the afterlife involves him in a lot of adventures with Doc Holliday, Jesus and Jesse James, to name but a few. The first half of the book describes Doug’s journey into Limbo (he thinks it’s Heaven, but it soon becomes clear that it isn’t). This beautifully described journey is a scathingly funny indictment of contemporary America (read it and blush). Barrett didn’t just dip his pen in sulphuric acid, he dropped his whole word processor in there. You simply can’t read it without squirming.

However once he arrives in Limbo (he gets there standing up, much to the surprise of everybody) the book becomes a little saccharine as Barrett starts to dramatise a rather half-baked philosophy of reincarnation and redemption. The motives of the people in Limbo are just a little bit too good, a little bit too sweet, and the book loses its bite. There’s no doubt that the book is a masterpiece, but it’s a flawed one.

Interstate Dreams is just wish fulfilment and therefore it’s a lot of fun! After Dreamer came back from the war the shell fragment embedded in his skull gave him power over all the locks in the world. All he had to do was think at them and they gave up their secrets, just like that. Between assignments he sells tropical fish. (The fishy arguments between Dreamer and his ex-viet-cong shop assistant are surrealistic humour at its best). But mainly he obtains stuff for people from behind locked doors. One day things go a little wrong…

You can probably write most of the rest of it yourself from that small hint. But you won’t do it as cleverly, as funnily or as excitingly as Neal Barrett Jr has done.

With Colonization: Aftershocks Harry Turtledove gives us the third book of the second series about an alien invasion of Earth. That makes seven books in total so far. If you haven’t read the others, you’ll never want to read this one.

The Third Reich is in total disarray, having been almost wiped out by the aliens’ nuclear bombs. However they still have a degree of unity and their voice, though considerably weakened, is still being listened to. The Japanese have built their own nuclear weapons and their voice is also starting to be heard in the councils of the movers and shakers.

The American President Warren dies, and the Warren Commission investigates his death (Turtledove sticks lots of sly jokes like this into the books – one of the many reasons why I enjoy them so much) and the captured alien children continue to grow in their human family home. Their rapid progress astonishes everybody. The aliens addiction to ginger is causing them severe problems and the point is made that if the drug is ever successfully smuggled back to the Home Worlds it could destroy their society. Just one more problem for the Fleet Lord to worry about (as if he didn’t have enough already).

We finally learn who was responsible for the destruction of the aliens colony ship and Atvar takes a terrible revenge. We also learn the true purpose of the American spaceship Lewis and Clark and I strongly suspect that it will lead to a third series of books. Will this story never end? If it does, will I live long enough to see it? These are all important questions.

Meanwhile, just sit back and enjoy the ride. The books are a magnificent accomplishment, a superb example of everything that science fiction does best.

I took a taxi to my hotel. We drove past the Rotorua golf course. Most golf courses have sandy bunkers. Not the Rotorua golf course. It has fenced off areas that bubble and steam. Golf balls that land in them simply melt. It adds a whole new meaning to the word hazard.

I was staying in a very luxurious hotel. Every room had a private spa. Such opulence! I could soak my weary body in hot perfumed foam. I could sip champagne and dream erotic dreams of well endowed dusky maidens shaking their charms to the rhythms of haunting music played in a minor key. Wow!

I turned on the tap. Freezing cold water gushed into the spa. It was so cold I could almost see ice cubes forming as it flowed. I waited but it didn’t get any warmer. I went down to the reception desk.

"I think there’s something wrong with the water supply to my room. There isn’t any hot water in the spa."

"Ah yes," said the nice lady behind the desk. "That’s right. It’s the whole hotel actually. We haven’t any hot water at all."

"The whole hotel?"

"Yes, that’s right. There was a new geyser erupted in the park last week and it’s taken all the heat from our bore. We’ve got someone working on it, but at the moment, the whole hotel is cold."

Glumly I retired to bed. The next morning I began the day with a cold shower and made my shivering way to work where I discovered that of the five people attending my course, three had just been made redundant and one was expecting to be made redundant at any moment. An atmosphere of deep gloom prevailed and they didn’t laugh at any of my jokes.

Fortunately when I got back to the hotel I found that the hot water was back on. I filled the spa and settled back to soak. Scarcely had I relaxed, however, when what seemed to be every mosquito in Rotorua flew through the open window and committed dramatic kamikaze suicide by diving into the spa pool with me. I peeled the thick crust of insects from the top of the water, spat out a few lumpy bits, and closed the window. But the mood was spoiled. Never mind. Nothing else could possibly go wrong…

In the last article I praised the novels of Alan Furst and looked forward to reading his remaining books. Well now I’ve read them and if anything I want to praise him even more than I’ve already done.

Structurally his novels consist of a series of closely related novelettes each pretty much complete in itself but each following on from the last and leading in to the next. It is an interesting structure that allows him to cover large geographical areas and long expanses of time without having to fill the gaps in between with irrelevant action whose purpose is simply to move the protagonist around. It gives a taut, spare feeling to the prose which complements the taut, spare darkness of the 1930s European politics that he presents us with.

This structure is very common in science fiction books but is seldom if ever seen in the mainstream. Often it is imposed on science fiction novels simply because the shorter works were originally published as complete stories in the magazines and only later do they get fixed up as novels. But Alan Furst seems to have planned the structure from the start rather than having it imposed upon him. It works very effectively indeed.

Those of us who have never experienced war have a tendency to romanticise it. Furst strips off that romantic veneer. People hurt, people die. Psychopaths can let themselves go legitimately. (Shall I break this man’s jaw with my rifle butt? Perhaps I will; I’m bored and I’m a member of the conquering army). Paranoia becomes second nature. When the Gestapo come in the small hours of the morning you have to assume they are coming for you and you’d better run. The prison camps and the graveyards are full of people who assumed the Gestapo were coming for somebody else.

The books are black and tragic. They dramatise the politics of despair and the cynicism that derives from social disintegration. But they are not without humour:

Mice lived in one closet, squirrels in another and God only

knew what in the third because they could hear it in there

but nobody could open the door.

It makes a grim contrast, and even the humour is tinged with black.

On Friday afternoon, I got to Rotorua airport in plenty of time to catch the 5.25pm flight home to Auckland. I went up to the check in desk and made myself known.

I’m sorry sir," said the lady. "We’ve had terrible weather conditions all day and the flight is delayed by three hours."

I must have looked as if I was going to cry because she leaned close and whispered "I’ll tell you what. Leave it with me and I’ll have words with the other airline and see if I can transfer you to their flight."

My heart leaped. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. She duly had her word, and the lady at the rival airline check in counter consulted her computer. "There’s one free seat," she announced.

The plane was tiny. A dozen passengers in all. The entire crew consisted of simply a pilot and copilot, both of whom looked barely old enough to be weaned. The in-flight catering was a ham sandwich in a red paper bag that was lying on the seat. A voice from the seat behind me said: "I recognise the toothmarks in this sandwich – it’s the one I didn’t eat on the flight up this morning."

I had a wonderful view of one of the engines through the cabin window. There was a rivet missing from the engine cowling and when the propeller wound its way up to full speed the section with the missing rivet raised up slightly as if it was about to tear off.

We took off into thick cloud and driving rain. The wind threw the little plane violently all over the sky and the engine cowling flapped back and forth. The entire journey to Auckland was flown with zero visibility; we never left the cloud cover. Every so often the captain made an announcement over the PA system but I have no idea what he said because the volume was turned down so low that all I could hear was a faint "scritch, scritch" as he spoke.

Eventually we bounced down onto the tarmac at Auckland. I was home; it was over. Nothing else could go wrong now…

Foreign Bodies is Stephen Dedman’s second novel and while it is never less than competent, it is nevertheless a minor work, full of sound and fury but having little significance (if I may be allowed a paraphrase).

Mike Galloway lives in San Francisco in 2014. He is robbed of his body by a traveller from the future and is forced to live in the body of a female street kid. He claws his way back from that tragedy and becomes closely involved with the fight against the future neo-Nazis who seem to have infiltrated contemporary society at an alarming number of levels. More body swaps and much violence happen.

Dedman has done his usual brilliant job of portraying the society in which his protagonists live (you can taste the grit) but the plot is over-melodramatic, stuffed full of kitchen sinks, and it suffers far too much from the ‘oh dear, I’ve written myself into a corner, I’d better have somebody come through the door with a gun’ syndrome. This was a dramatic device much favoured by Raymond Chandler who claimed that he used it whenever he got stuck. Unfortunately Stephen Dedman is not (yet) writing at that rarefied level and in his hands it just makes the story fall apart.

The Graveyard Game is the fourth novel in Kage Baker’s ongoing saga of the far future corporation with tentacles stretching back through time. There is a small section at the start that summarises what has gone before, but frankly I doubt that anyone who has not read the previous books would get much out of this one.

After her abortive journey uptime, Mendoza has vanished. Joseph and Lewis both feel somewhat to blame and Joseph in particular is coming to realise that the Company is nowhere near as benevolent as he had once believed. For too long now he has closed his eyes to the evidence; he has lost too many friends to the darkness.

In their own ways, together and apart, Joseph and Lewis begin to investigate Mendoza’s past. Just what did happen on Catalina Island? Did the mysterious Englishman really die? Was Joseph hallucinating when he saw both of them together in 1923? Clue and incident pile upon incident and clue and both lead to a terrible confrontation on Catalina Island itself. And 2355, the year of the great silence is now very close indeed. Joseph has been alive since men first lived in caves; he saw them banging the rocks together (and banged a few himself). But now, at last, he is running out of time.

Kage Baker is writing the definitive story of historical manipulation. Other writers have played with the idea but nobody has explored it in the depth or with the subtlety that she has. When this sequence of books is complete (in an interview with she said there would be a total of eight books in the series) it will be recognised as a tour de force. Kage Baker is quietly writing a classic.

A day and a half later I arrived at Auckland airport to catch the 3.30pm flight to Wellington. I went straight to the counter to check in.

"I’m sorry sir, but the 3.30pm flight has been cancelled."


"Yes, sir. Bad weather at Norfolk Island."

"Norfolk Island?" I was bewildered. "What’s Norfolk Island got to do with it?"

"The plane flies from Norfolk Island to Wellington and then from Wellington to Auckland where it becomes the 3.30 flight back to Wellington. But it can’t take off from Norfolk Island so the flight is cancelled. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. Would you like me to re-book you on the 4.30 flight?"

"Yes please."

After that, nothing else could possibly go wr

Avram Davidson Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven Devon Publishing
Tim Powers Declare Morrow
Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle The Burning City Orbit
Robert Asprin & Linda Evans Ripping Time Baen
Neal Barrett Jr The Prophecy Machine Bantam Spectra
Neal Barrett Jr The Hereafter Gang Mojo Press
Neal Barrett Jr Interstate Dreams Mojo Press
Harry Turtledove Colonization: Aftershocks Del Rey
Alan Furst Night Shadows Harper Collins
Alan Furst Kingdom of Shadows Harper Collins
Alan Furst Red Gold Harper Collins
Alan Furst The Polish Officer Harper Collins
Stephen Dedman Foreign Bodies Tor
Kage Baker The Graveyard Game Harcourt

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