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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (quisquiliarum)


Every week I bundle up my rubbish and place it carefully in a big green plastic wheelie bin. The bin is positioned precisely on a special spot on the pavement and in the small hours of the next morning I am awoken from blissful slumber as a roaring behemoth of the night picks up the bin and empties the contents into its grinding maw. This is the way the world has always been, but it is not the way the world will be in the future.

Everyone in Auckland is talking about rubbish. Commuters from Waiheke Island have come out from behind their morning papers to discuss it on the ferry. Buses full of complete strangers hum with conversation as the merits of recycling are debated.

All over the city, residents are waking to find that a new wheelie bin has entered their lives. This one is smaller than that previously used, and it has a pretty red lid. The council, in their wisdom, have decided that the older, larger bins are aesthetically unpleasing (for they are green all over) and, more importantly, they are far too big thereby encouraging people to produce too much waste. Auckland, they claim, is drowning in rubbish. The new, sleek, slimline, half-size bins with the pretty red lids will address this problem directly by forcing people cut down on their rubbish production.

No more the secret midnight thrill of heaving your extra trash into somebody else’s wheelie bin. Now theirs too will be crammed full of their own junk. Recycle it, compost it, is the encouraging cry. This is all well and good, but much of the rubbish I generate is neither biodegradable nor recyclable for it is the wrong grade of plastic and won’t be collected. Bugger.

Tales of the Galactic Midway is a collection of four of Mike Resnick’s early novels. Sideshow is set largely on Earth and is a story of a travelling carnival that gets some new freaks for its freak show. The freaks (not surprisingly) are actually aliens and, to cut a long story short, after many adventures the carnival leaves Earth to seek its fortune among the stars.

The Three-Legged Hootch Dancer concerns the trials and tribulations of one of the strippers. She regards stripping as an art form and herself as an artist (and she is very good at it). However of all the acts that the carnival takes to the stars, hers is the only one that fails to ignite the audiences. The reason is not hard to find – there is nothing titillating about watching a human being take its clothes off to music when you yourself are not a human being. The aliens just don’t see anything attractive about a striptease act. Would you get a thrill from watching a horse take off its bridle and saddle? There isn’t any tease; it’s all strip. And it’s dull.

The Wild Alien Tamer tells the story of the carnival’s animal trainer. One by one his animals die as they succumb to illness and old age. The only possible substitutes are alien animals.

Finally, The Best Rootin’ Tootin’ Shootin’ Gunslinger in the whole Damned Galaxy involves us in the story of Billybuck Dancer, a sharpshooter who routinely performs incredible feats of marksmanship but who is bored with life. His dream is to have lived in the old wild west, his heroes are the gunslingers, and he mourns the fact that in this modern day and age there are no opponents worthy of his skill, nobody to go up against in a final confrontation. But then he finds an enemy worthy of his skills. Life (and death) start to perk up a bit.

The novels are very easy to read. They pull you along in a rip-roaring adventure with well drawn characters, exciting situations, triumphs, tragedies, laughter and tears. Everything Resnick touches turns to gold in his typewriter. He is a storyteller par excellence. I think the greatest praise you can give a writer is to admit that you simply can’t wait to find out what happens next. And I really couldn’t wait. The collection is a big, fat book; but I read it in a sitting.

A Body in the Bath House is the latest adventure of Falco, the detective in Vespasian’s Rome. Falco has hired two inept builders, Gloccus and Cotta, to build him a bath house. Eventually, after much procrastination, the thing is finished, though the workmanship is poor and generally unsatisfactory. And there’s a rather odd smell…

Eventually the smell becomes unbearable and Falco (sure of what he will find) is forced to take a pickaxe to the ceramic floor (no great loss – the tiles are cracking and the grouting is flaking away). The decomposing remains of one of the workers lies reeking in the space revealed. Gloccus and Cotta have much to answer for, but they are long gone and the trail is lost.

Meanwhile, far away in Britain, a fine palace is being built for King Togidubnus, an important Roman ally. The project is not going well. It is over budget and behind schedule and everybody hates the project manager. Vespasian, notoriously frugal, wants the affair cleaned up. Falco is sent to Britain to take over the project. His position of authority makes him unpopular with the workers and managers, most of whom are on the fiddle to a greater or lesser extent. His life is in danger (and maybe Gloccus and Cotta aren’t as far away as they might have been). To add to his woes, he has a toothache, and the dentistry of AD73 is not the most sophisticated.

The book is the cynical, satirical mixture as before. Nothing has changed at all in the building trade for the last two thousand years.

All Auckland houses can now use up to three recycling bins. Previously only one was allowed. These cute blue bins are enormously popular. People use them to equip the family picnic in the park. Fisherman find them wonderful, for they have a hole in the bottom making it particularly easy to drain their daily catch. Sometimes people use them for holding goods to be recycled. How unimaginative.

It is instructive to wander the street and make deductions about the lifestyles of the inhabitants from the contents of the recycling bins and the cardboard boxes and papers that are dumped beside the bins for the Paper Tiger to collect. This household lives on pizza and coke, that one on beer. This house has cats, that one dogs, the other one small children. These people have just bought an expensive sound system, those have taken delivery of a computer. Burglars walk the streets taking notes and have been seen, on occasion, to run away with wheelie bins and paper piles in order to go through them at their leisure hunting for credit card numbers and bank account details. People are often very careless with their discards. It may be rubbish to you, but it is treasure to someone else.

One new red-topped wheelie bin is allowed per title holder. At first glance it sounds quite sensible, but it does lead to some anomalies. A very large, luxurious multi-bedroomed hotel in the city is owned by a single person. This enormous building must therefore now dispose of the rubbish generated by its staff and its hundreds of guests in a single 120-litre wheelie bin. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, a much smaller, much less luxurious hotel has, through some curious quirk of corporate ownership, 389 names on its title deed. Its manager is now faced with the problem of finding storage space for the 389 wheelie bins that were delivered last week. Perhaps he needs another, larger bin in which he can toss the surplus red-topped bins – a meta-rubbish bin as it were.

Geoffrey A. Landis has won several awards for his short stories, but Mars Crossing is his first novel. It concerns the third expedition sent to explore Mars. The first two ended tragically, but there are great hopes for this mission. However from the moment of their landing everything goes wrong. The fuel tanks left by the second expedition which were supposed to provide them with fuel for the return to Earth are corroded and empty and their life support systems are beginning to fail. Their only hope of survival is to journey across half the planet to the landing site of the first expedition. There, locked in the polar ice cap is the unused return vehicle left abandoned years ago when its crew perished. However even if they succeed in reaching the pole, the ship is only large enough for two of them to use it. The other members of the expedition will have to remain behind to die.

I enjoyed the book – I found myself interested in the characters and I wanted to know what happened to them. I was also pleased to find out a lot about their backgrounds; there are many flashback episodes that put flesh on the their bones. But ultimately I was a little bit disappointed (though only a little). Mars just wasn’t Martian enough. I never really felt that Landis did sufficient justice to the alien environment. The long journey across Mars to the pole could equally well have been a long journey across an arid, isolated place on Earth. The tension and danger of the trip and the interactions between the characters were beautifully handled and beautifully written (Landis is an enormously skilful writer), but in the end, it didn’t really live up to its initial promise.

Return to Mars is Ben Bova’s sequel to Mars. It has been almost universally panned by the critics and so I consciously avoided reading it because the first novel was so absolutely brilliant that I was loath to tarnish its image. However, eventually, against my better judgement, I read it. And I loved it; I thought it was a wonderful book. All of which proves that you should never pay any attention to critics and reviewers. If you feel like paying no attention to me either, I won’t blame you.

I must admit, I have a huge bias in favour of books whose plot can be summed up in the phrase "we went to Mars and looked around a bit". I simply cannot resist the lure of those books. I own 29 books with the word "Mars" in their title, 4 with "Red Planet" in the title, 16 with "Martian" in the title and untold numbers which don’t mention the word in the title at all but are nevertheless about Mars.

Anyway, in Return to Mars, Jamie Waterman, the hero of the first book, returns to Mars (!) as the leader of the second expedition. The team is charged with investigating the lichen-like life that was discovered by the first expedition. But Jamie also has his own private agenda; he is determined to explore the buildings he thinks he glimpsed briefly towards the end of his first stay on the planet. However this will have to wait – to begin with, the routine business of the exploration takes up all of his time. Also, as leader of the expedition, he has duties and responsibilities greater than his own immediate concerns. Partly, of course, he is responsible for morale and for ensuring that the disparate (and sometimes very prickly) personalities of his team mesh together. He also has to resist political pressure and interference from Earth, interference which at times threatens the whole future of Martian exploration. Jamie has his own ideas about how he wants it to proceed, but other seemingly more powerful factions oppose him. Balancing these forces requires him to walk a narrow tightrope.

The excitement and sheer wonder of being on Mars shines through every paragraph. Bova does a wonderful job of making it seem real (truly, I think this is just how we will do it and just how it will seem when we eventually do – the verisimilitude is amazing, and hugely convincing). I could have done without the soap-opera-ish sub plot about the crew member who goes insane and tries to sabotage the mission, but this does not become an overt plot point until very nearly the end of the book, so it doesn’t interfere too much with the development of the story. To balance that, I was enormously amused and entertained by the ingenious way that Jamie cuts the gordion knot of political interference in the goals of the expedition.

All in all, this is a worthy sequel to the earlier book and together the two of them represent a tour de force of the Martian exploration genre.

Charles Sheffield’s The Spheres of Heaven is also a sequel to an earlier work, The Mind Pool which itself is actually a heavily revised version of a very early novel called The Nimrod Hunt. Still with me? Good.

The essential situation is this: the Stellar Federation has denied Earth permission to travel between the stars. Earth space exploration is confined to a sphere about one light year across. The Federation has placed Earth in this quarantine because humans are too violent and too prone to war. This is anathema. However in the opening to The Spheres of Heaven, we find out that the Federation has discovered a hitherto unknown interstellar link point in an area of space known as the Geyser Swirl. The ships they sent to explore whatever was on the other side of the link have vanished without trace. It appears that the Federation might have a use for the rowdy Earth humans after all. Chan Dalton is asked to put together an expedition to investigate the Geyser Swirl.

It comes as no surprise to the reader when they find another alien race inside the Geyser Swirl. To that extent, the book lacks originality. However it remains an engrossing read because Sheffield’s brilliantly realised aliens are utterly fascinating. The Tinkers, Pipe-Rillas and Angels that make up the Federation and the Bubble People and Malacostracans in the Geyser Swirl are magnificently imagined. The plot creaks, but the book rocks. I loved it!

Eoim Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is being promoted as the new Harry Potter, the next great publishing success that will take the reading world by storm. That’s what the publicity material would have you believe. Original! Exciting! Imaginative! Artemis Fowl is none of these things. I predict that it will sink without trace and the publishers will lose a packet. Serves them right for trying cynically to manufacture a cash cow. You’d think they’d know by now that is not the way it works.

Artemis Fowl is twelve years old. He is the son of a master criminal and is a master criminal in his own right. And he has a master plan. He will kidnap a fairy and hold it to ransom. Unfortunately the fairy he captures (in Ireland, of course) is Captain Holly Short of LEPrecon unit, a quasi-military arm of faery.

It’s a kidnap and chase story, unbelievably banal, with a lot of rather arch puns of the LEPrecon variety (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, geddit? Eh?). It is dull, thoughtless and utterly unoriginal. Don’t bother with it.

Kim Wilkins, the horror writer from Australia, goes from strength to strength. The Resurrectionist is a superb (and very classical) horror novel. Maisie Fielding lives in Brisbane and plays cello in the symphony orchestra. She visits England and travels to the Yorkshire village of Solgreve to investigate her family’s past. Her grandmother lived there and Maisie takes up residence in her grandmother’s old house. Among other things, Maisie wants to find out why her grandmother was estranged from the family. Nobody in the family would talk about her – indeed, Maisie’s mother didn’t even tell her that her grandmother had died!

The villagers do not make her welcome. Right from the beginning there is enmity. Only Sascha, the gypsy who looked after her grandmother’s garden, makes her welcome.

The house is full of old books, old documents, old spells. Maisie finds a diary written by an eighteenth century lady who had lived in the same cottage two hundred years before. The diary hints at dark deeds – graves are robbed, a diabolical doctor holds the village in thrall.

Maisie starts to see visitations – not quite ghosts, but something unearthly. There are secrets in Solgreve. Some things never die.

The supernatural tension never lets up. The novel builds and builds, climax upon climax as more sinister secrets are revealed, more diabolical plots unveiled. Dead hands cross the centuries, dead souls cry out. The denouement, while prefigured, is breathtaking. This is one of the great horror stories and Kim Wilkins is one of the great horror writers.

Court cases are pending against Auckland City Council because of the new, small wheelie bin policy. A lady from Epsom believes that the introduction of the bins is a breach of the Human Rights Act and she has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. "It struck me as so unfair," she is quoted as saying. "There are six units next door and each will have the same size bin as we have for a family of five!" She claims that the uniform reduction in bin size across the board will put unfair pressure on larger households. A council spokesman does not agree with her.

"We have ‘waste doctors’ who will be able to assist those who have any difficulty."

Waste doctors?

"Put two aspirin in the rubbish bin twice a day for a week. If it doesn’t get better come back and see me again and we’ll arrange for a trashectomy operation."

It has been suggested that the rubbish collection vehicles be fitted with video cameras. Each bin will be videotaped as it is emptied. Anyone found disposing of inappropriate rubbish will be visited at dead of night by the rubbish police. The waste doctors will prepare psychiatric reports and the rubbish criminals will have to attend waste management workshops. Repeat offences will carry a mandatory sentence of biodegradation.

Each bin is delivered with a leaflet sellotaped to it which says in big, bold, friendly letters that the new bin cannot be used until the week beginning July 2nd. Despite this, for the three weeks prior to July 2nd, red lidded wheelie bins full of rubbish have lined the streets. When the rubbish was not collected, aggrieved residents inundated the Council with complaints. A man on the radio said through gritted teeth:

"We are very pleased that people are embracing the new collection system so enthusiastically, but we would encourage them to restrain their enthusiasm until after July 2nd."

He didn’t say that the rubbish police had been informed, but the implication was clear.

Allen Steele’s new novel Chronospace is an expansion of his award winning novella "…Where Angels Fear to Tread". The crew of the time ship Oberon are on a mission to investigate the causes of the destruction of the airship Hindenburg in 1937. They successfully infiltrate themselves onto the airship and all seems to be going according to plan. However when the moment of destruction arrives – nothing happens. It would seem that their very presence as investigators from the future has altered the timeline and when they return to the future, things are very different indeed…

There’s nothing new about any of this of course. The time traveller who alters the past and therefore changes the course of history is a theme as old as science fiction itself and Steele does nothing original with it. But that doesn’t matter because he tells an exciting story within the tired old framework. The period detail of 1937 is beautifully presented and the characters spring to life and strut and fret their hour upon the page. It is a superb example of the kind of story that grips you and won’t let go because you have to know what happens next.

Forty years ago I read John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids and that was the book that turned me from a dilettante into a raving SF enthusiast – an obsessive/compulsive disorder from which I still suffer today. The novel ends with a promise for the future. A small band of people congregate on the Isle of Wight. They manage to clear all the triffids from it and they keep it triffid free. As the book ends the colony is flourishing.

I always wanted to know what happened after that. It was obvious that there was a lot more to the story. But Wyndham never returned to it and eventually he died. It seemed that there would be no more triffids.

But now the Wyndham estate has given permission for a sequel to be written and Simon Clark has given us The Night of the Triffids.

It opens about twenty years after the ending of the first book. David Masen, the son of the narrator of Wyndham’s book awakes to darkness. In an eerie reprise of the opening of The Day of the Triffids David wonders if he has gone blind overnight. It turns out that he hasn’t – the sun has gone out.

Daylight (of a sort) gradually returns. It is theorised that some kind of interstellar dust cloud has passed across the orbit of the Earth, temporarily obscuring the sun.

Meanwhile, David has been rescued by a ship crewed by survivors from America. It is David’s first intimation that there are other colonies in the world apart from his own. He is taken to Manhattan where he soon becomes involved in the struggle for survival there.

A minor character from The Day of the Triffids turns up again in America and has become a person of power and influence in the intervening years. Soon David comes to realise that the politics of hate are universal and human nature doesn’t change. Despite the threat of the triffids, there are still wheelers and dealers trying to take advantage of the situation at the expense of their fellows. Sod you Jack, I’m all right.

And the triffids appear to be developing alarming new capacities…

It is obvious that Clark soaked up John Wyndham at about the same age that I did and was as hooked on triffids as I was. Unlike me, he has the ability to answer the questions that Wyndham left unanswered. The book is very Wyndham-esque (though at the same time wholly original); it is a perfect homage. I’m sure Wyndham himself would be proud of it. It is exciting, thrilling, and just as enthralling as the original.

And just like the original (damnit!) it raises more questions than it answers and more sequels are called for. I can’t really fault Clark for that. The master did it, so he has to do it as well.

I loved it. Maybe I’m biased because of the preconceptions I brought to it. Other, more objective critics will have to decide on the merits of this book. I’m much too closely involved. I didn’t go to bed until about 2.30am because I HAD to finish it first.

And the next day I re-read The Day of the Triffids for the first time in about 12 years. I loved it all over again and I realised anew just how superb a job Simon Clark had done with his sequel.

The delivery of the bins to each city household has not been without its problems. A monster road train (multiply articulated vehicle) shuffles and roars down the street. Every so often, men hop off and wheel the bins to the front of each house. This is generally the most exciting (and noisiest) thing that happens on the street all day. Those who are at home to witness it usually pop out and join in the fun. Impromptu street parties eventuate. Cups of tea and gossip are swapped.

One such party was astonished to observe one of the bin delivery men steal a pedigree dog from the house to which he was delivering his bin. The dog, not unnaturally, objected to being stolen and added his voice to the general din. The street party, and the bin man’s colleagues, were collectively gobsmacked.

The man himself was quite astonished when a police car turned up. Who could have seen him? How had they found out?

"Just taking it for a walk, Officer."

He must have left his gorm at home that morning…

Mike Resnick Tales of the Galactic Midway Farthest Star
Lindsey Davis A Body in the Bath House Century
Geoffrey A. Landis Mars Crossing Tor
Ben Bova Return to Mars NEL
Charles Sheffield The Spheres of Heaven Baen
Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl Viking
Kim Wilkins The Resurrectionist Orion
Allen Steele Chronospace Ace
Simon Clark The Night of the Triffids Hodder & Stoughton

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