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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (amotio ex maioro)

Alan Buys A New Toy

Buying a new computer is turning into an almost annual event in the Robson home. I now own five times as many computers as there are people living in the house (I calculated that statistic on one of the more powerful of the computers). Even the cats have two each, and only last week Milo passed his final exam for his MCSE certification. Ginger hasn’t passed any exams yet; she keeps eating the mice.

It’s scary how much computing power is just floating around the average home these days. Perhaps soon all the common household objects that we take for granted will be more powerful than my (rather ancient) laptop. Even now they give it a good run for its money. My current washing machine can run rings around the 286 desktop I have sitting in the corner of the room. I use the tumble dryer for solving partial differential equations and the fridge for calculating orbital trajectories. I think the fridge is getting bored with having so little to do – it keeps sending me emails complaining that it hasn’t got enough beer, the yoghurt is mouldy and the cleaning woman’s been at the gin again.

I’m seriously thinking of upgrading the old laptop to a digital camera. Don’t laugh – the new generation of digital cameras really do have more memory, more storage space and a faster processor than the laptop I bought only five years ago. Scary thought!

But none of the computers in the house have enough grunt to allow me to play the new game I just bought (even the washing machine isn’t quite powerful enough for that) – hence the decision to let another box into my life.

Dan Simmons has made a name for himself as a writer of very cerebral science fiction and horror novels. Lately however, he seems to have taken to reinventing himself as a mainstream genre novelist (if there is such a thing) and to this end he has written a superb novel of World War II espionage (The Crook Factory), a mediocre urban legend novel (Darwin’s Blade) and now with Hardcase, a hard boiled gangster novel.

Joe Kurtz murders the drug dealer who killed his girl friend. It’s a revenge killing and Joe makes sure that he gets every ounce of revenge going. The murder is brutal, excruciatingly painful and bloody and, for Joe, enormously satisfying. He gets eleven years in Attica jail, but they pass in the turning of a page.

When Joe gets out, he uses the contacts he made inside to wangle a job with a Mafia big boss. The boss wants Joe to track down one of his comrades who has vanished with a lot of the Mafia funds. It seems straight forward, but there are wheels within wheels, loyalties within loyalties and Joe is soon up to his neck in ultra-violence. Everyone wants him dead.

The tension never lets up and the violence never ends. Blood drips off the page, agony screams from every chapter heading, mangled bodies litter the paragraphs. The carnage never stops.

It’s a dark, dismal novel and I felt slightly dirty when I’d finished it.

Vampyrrhic was much more to my taste. Vampires! Nosferatu! A quiet Yorkshire village where death isn’t always forever.

Simon Clark writes trash horror novels (are there any other kind?), and he does it brilliantly. There isn’t anything in the book that will take you by surprise – it’s all straight out of the stock cupboard. And yet there’s a certain magic. He makes you keep reading. You need to know what happens next. I think it is because he makes you believe in his characters. The situations are stultifyingly familiar to anyone who has even skimmed the horror genre, but Clark fills the stock scenarios with people that you care about. They have lives; they live and love and laugh, and you grieve when they die horrible deaths and you cheer when they triumph over the evil monsters. Yes it’s manipulative as all hell, but Clark controls his material with the sure hand of a master. When you do it this well, even the clichés take on new after lives.

Blood Crazy isn’t a supernatural novel but it is a horror story. One day (for reasons that remain mostly mysterious) the entire adult population of the world starts killing all its children. Nick Aten is a survivor of this carnage, (though his brother is brutally murdered by their parents), and the book details his struggles to survive in the post-apocalyptic world. In many ways this is the archetypal apocalyptic novel that has been the bread and butter of SF fare ever since H. G. Wells invented it. It was great a century ago, and it is just as great now – there is an eternal fascination about the theme and Simon Clark does it proud.

Towards the end of the book, there is a half-baked attempt at an explanation as to why the adults acted the way they did. It’s all rather mystical and fey and Clark really does nothing with it. It feels like an afterthought, an attempt to try and pin a logical structure on the plot. It’s best to pay no attention to it and simply to groove on the violence, the pain and the sheer terror of this very dangerous post-apocalyptic world. Approached on that level, this is a superb example of the genre. It isn’t quite up there with the masters (George Stewart’s Earth Abides or John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids) but it is still pretty good.

Leslie Thomas is one of my favourite contemporary British novelists. He made his reputation many years ago with The Virgin Soldiers (and its several sequels) but his major triumph has been an intermittent set of unconnected novels about England during the second world war. Thematically they are closely related of course, but all are independent works with no characters in common. The reason they work so well is that they swing convincingly from comedy to tragedy and back again at the drop of a syllable.

Other Times is the latest of these novels. James Bevan is a junior officer, approaching middle age (he was born in 1900 and has grown up with the century). He is in charge of a small anti-aircraft unit with two Bofors guns on the South coast. He left his wife on the day that war was declared and now the unit is his family and he worries about it, frets about it and guides it through trauma, tragedy and mirth. The unit is involved in the doomed defence of Norway from the German invaders, and with the retreat from Dunkirk and also has a small part to play in the epic Battle of Britain. Interwoven with this surface story is the solid underpinning which is James Bevan’s life, and the life of the century itself. We grow up with him. We live through his schooldays, the day his parents die and he and his sister are forcibly separated, the sinking of the Titanic and the terrible events of the First World War. All these mould the man who now has to face huge responsibilities in the second war against Germany, the enemy who never really went away. Not only is this book a close examination (again) of what it was like to live in an England under siege, it is also a compassionate tale of loves lost and loves regained, of the simple (and sometimes not so simple) tale of the journey of a man through his life, of the things that made him and his country and his century what they are. It is a novel of opportunities lost and opportunities gained, and it is an attempt to answer one of the great questions – Why?

And it’s also a hell of a good story as a bonus. Who needs a sub text?

I went to see Helen, who works at PC Town in Mount Albert, and who knows about these things.

"Sell me a new computer," I hinted.

A gleam of techno-lust entered her eye. There is nothing she likes doing more than building a computer to some outrageous specification and then selling it to somebody.

"How much memory do you want?"

"Errr, ummm 128Mb will probably do," I guessed wildly, doubling the amount in the computer I bought last time.

"RAM is really cheap," she said. "How about 256Mb?"


"It’s really, really, really cheap," she said. "How about 512Mb? Go on – you know you want to. How fast do you want it? Gigahertz processors are very cheap just at present."

"Er, righto."

"Do you want a CD writer? They’re a bargain price at the moment."

"Do I?"

"Yes," she decided. "AMD or Intel CPU?"

I shrugged helplessly and Helen launched into long comparison of the two which left me none the wiser. "You want an AMD," she explained. "They’re much better. And cheaper."

"I agree," I agreed.

"The standard disk is 30Gb – but you can upgrade to 40Gb for only another $40. "

I was punch drunk, and simmering with the beginnings of a technological orgasm. "Gimme the disk," I whispered. "Three-D video," I murmured. "Network card," I groaned. "Modem," I shrieked as the climax hit.

"Really cheap at the moment," Helen said, making notes. She added up all the bits and pieces and quoted a price so reasonable that I almost bought two of everything. But I restrained myself.

"Yes, yes! Oh, yes!"

"Pick it up tomorrow evening," said Helen.

You have to admire a book where one of the major characters is the decapitated head of Buffalo Bill Cody preserved in a jar of pig’s urine. (His axe wielding wife caught him in bed with Lily Langtry). Nowadays his only excitement is having his crank turned every so often. The juice it generates gives him a much needed boost.

I think Joe Lansdale’s Zeppelins West is one of the oddest books I’ve ever read. It is set in an alternate timeline. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show is travelling on a Zeppelin to Japan. Wild Bill Hickock, a star of the show, seduces Annie Oakley. Sitting Bull reminisces about General Custer. "White eye motherfucker in wrong place at wrong time".

Once they arrive in Japan, they discover that Frankenstein’s monster is being held prisoner by the shogun who carves flesh from him to make love potions. Cody rescues the monster, but the Japanese take umbrage and the Zeppelin is shot down over the ocean. Fortunately all are rescued by Captain Bemo, who happens to be passing in his submersible, the "Naughty Lass". He takes them to the island of Dr. Momo, a mad vivisectionist who promises Cody a new body. But Tin, the metal man who is haunted by memories of a young girl called Dot, soon becomes embroiled in the plot. And then…

You might think you recognise some of this. You might be right. Doubtless Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and L. Frank Baum are spinning like tops even as we read.

Harry Turtledove seems to have taken on a project to re-tell the whole of the history of the twentieth century as an alternate timeline. Blood and Iron is the first book of a new trilogy called American Empire. But it is also the fourth (or possibly fifth, depending on how you count them) book about the impact of the First World War on an American continent where the Confederate states won the civil war and America remained a country divided. The Great War novels paralleled the war in Europe with a similar war in America. The Confederate states were crushed and the series ended with the Northern states triumphant. Now, in Blood and Iron we follow the history of the Confederacy as it struggles to come to grips with its crushing defeat.

Turtledove makes many fascinating comparisons with the history of our own time line. Following the defeat of Germany in our First World War, the country degenerated into chaos. There was rampant inflation (a million marks would buy you a cup of ersatz coffee) and a young army corporal called Adolf Hitler joined a fledgling political party that blamed the Jews for all of Germany’s troubles. By means of clever political machinations, he soon rose to a position of power in the Nazi party with consequences with which we are all familiar.

Well, in the alternate history of Blood and Iron, a disillusioned Confederate army sergeant called Jake Featherston joins the fledgling Freedom party. The downfall of the Confederate states was caused by the niggers, everyone knows that. The Freedom party will put them in their place and make the country strong again. It is a simple, and very appealing message to a country that is collapsing in ruins, where everyone is a millionaire, but a million dollars barely buys breakfast in the morning.

The story follows the same episodic structure of the previous novels and we follow the same characters that we came to know and love in the previous books through their new lives in the post war world. That’s why I consider the novel to be a continuation of the same series rather than the start of something new, for without the background knowledge of how those people fared in the recently concluded war, it would be very hard to come to grips with the current story and to properly understand their motives and their lives.

I found it utterly absorbing and as always I am eagerly awaiting the next book (and the many that I am sure will follow it). Turtledove has done a superb job. He brings history to life and his quirky, alternative presentation of a familiar tale is endlessly fascinating.

Chris Ryan writes potboiling thrillers about the SAS. The Hit List is his best yet. It begins on the luxury yacht of newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell. Two assassins sneak on board. Before they kill him, they force him to open a safe from which they take some old photographs. Then they leave as quietly as they came. Apart from Maxwell himself, nobody knows that they were there and when his body is discovered it is assumed that he killed himself because his financial empire has crumbled around him.

Some time later, Neil Slater, an ex SAS soldier, has taken up a position as games master at an exclusive English school. He foils a kidnapping attempt. Approaches are made to him to join a covert unit known as the Cadre that operates under the vague auspices of the intelligence services. He turns the approach down but later events cause him to change his mind and the bulk of the novel concerns his adventures as part of an assassination team operating under cover in France. The things he uncovers on this mission prove to have far reaching ramifications and Slater is soon up to his neck in trouble as the plot twists beneath him and friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Cross and double cross, twist and turn, and the terrible secret that Robert Maxwell took to his grave threatens to resurrect itself and blight the hand that feeds him.

It is good old fashioned fingernail biting, edge of the seat tension. I loved it. It’s junk – but it’s damn good junk!

On the other hand, Colony by Rob Grant is also junk, but there’s nothing good about it at all.

Rob Grant is one half of the team of writers that was responsible for the hugely successful TV series Red Dwarf. On the strength of this book I can only assume that he was the one who wrote the boring bits. The blurb claims that the book is "cruel, cynical and very funny" but it lies in its teeth for the book is none of these things. It is extremely dull, very arch, and I didn’t laugh once – I didn’t even smile.

The human race is facing extinction (as usual). Global warming, overpopulation, all the usual things. Despite the fact that the nations of the world are getting poorer by the minute as they vainly try to combat all these horrible things, they still somehow manage to find the funds to build huge, expensive starships which, crewed by the cream of humanity (and, it turns out, some of the curdled clots that float in it) will save the situation. Grant seems quite oblivious to the contradictions inherent in this idea.

The good ship Willflower takes off on a voyage of colonisation. It will take many generations to reach its destination. By the tenth generation things have started to unravel a bit. The ship’s captain is a spotty child with a scatological sense of humour. He names passing planets after bodily functions. And he is one of the saner people on board. The only remaining hope of mankind is someone made up from all the bits that were left over.

I’m starting to fall asleep as I type this rubbish. Just like I fell asleep when I read the original, boring book. It strives too hard for effect. The jokes are telegraphed. They weren’t funny to begin with and the "watch out – here comes a joke" hysteria of the writing style makes them even less so.

By contrast, Marrow by Robert Reed is one of the best SF novels I’ve read all year. It is quintessential SF, full of brave ideas and bold speculations.

A giant starship enters the Milky Way. Where did it come from? Projecting its trajectory backwards gives no indication at all of its origin. It is an old ship – some evidence suggests that it is billions of years old. It seems to have been constructed from a Jupiter type planet; there are many, many miles of corridors and chambers hewn out of the solid rock. And they are all cold, deserted and empty. It seems almost as though there has never been anyone on the ship in its long, cold, lonely journey across time and space.

A crew of humans investigates and takes over the ship. Genetic engineering has assured them of near immortality and they determine to take the ship on a journey through the galaxy, picking up passengers as and when they wish (charging a suitable fee of course) for the ultimate sight seeing trip.

For thousands of years all goes well, but as the main part of the story opens, a group of senior officers have vanished as they set out to explore an enigma – the planet they call Marrow which they have discovered isolated in the heart of the ship. Well mapped and explored though the ship is, it seems that it still has mysteries to be investigated.

For more than five thousand years they are marooned on Marrow, forced to build a civilisation from scratch, forced to cope with dissension and mutiny, rebellion and heresy.

After this time of trial and tribulation, they return to the ship that abandoned them to Marrow. They are lean and mean, hardened and tempered by their experiences, and the ship’s somewhat decedent crew are easy prey to their ferocity. But the ship, and Marrow and even their own people still have surprises in store for them.

The sheer scale of the canvas is awe-inspiring. The vastness of space and time has seldom been more evocatively invoked, and neither has the minutiae of domestic politics and power plays – the novel spans the whole spectrum of human endeavour. It is utterly gripping.

The next evening, on my way home from work, I went round to PC Town. The computer was waiting for me, neatly wrapped up. I took it home, plugged it in and stayed up until the wee small hours.

It had a spiffy blue front (though the rest of the case was the usual boring beige) and it came equipped with far too much memory, far too much disk, a frighteningly fast processor and lots of ancillary gadgets. It was wonderful.

Shortly after midnight, I discovered that when I put a music CD in the drive absolutely no sound emerged from either the speakers or the sub-woofer. (I am unclear as to exactly what function a sub-woofer performs, but Helen assured me that I needed one). Also, around 2.45am I realised that I was toasty warm instead of shivering in the early morning chill. That was when I discovered that the computer appeared to be pumping out rather a lot of therms.

I gave Helen adequate time to wake up, breakfast herself and get to work. Then I rang her. First I explained about the lack of music from the speakers, not to mention the sub-woofer.

"Ah," she said as light dawned. They must have forgotten the sound cable from the CD drive. Bring it down to the shop. I’ll put one in."

Then I mentioned the heat.

"OK – I’ll check that out as well."

When I arrived at the shop, she stripped the machine, put in the missing cable, attached an extra fan and reassembled it. She gave me lots of detailed information about temperature thresholds and urged me to make sure that the machine was adequately ventilated.

"The temperature will go up a bit when you play the 3D games," she said. That sounded reasonable.

I was home within the hour. The extra fan kicked in and I listened to beautiful music at normal temperature and played my games. Occasionally, as the mood took me, I barked at the sub-woofer, but it never barked back.

Over the next few days, Helen researched the heat problem for me and also investigated a small voltage abnormality which the diagnostic software reported. She even took the trouble to return the machine to the suppliers of the motherboard where they tested out the bits and pieces and pronounced them all to be within acceptable tolerance levels. Having gathered the evidence, she rang me and reassured me that all was well – as indeed it has subsequently proved to be. Now that’s what I call service above and beyond the norm.

This infomercial was brought to you by the letters P and C and the keyword Town. You should use them lots.

Dan Simmons Hardcase St. Martins
Simon Clark Vampyrrhic NEL
Simon Clark Blood Crazy Leisure
Leslie Thomas Other Times Heinemann
Joe. R. Lansdale Zeppelins West Subterranean Press
Harry Turtledove American Empire: Blood and Iron Del Rey
Chris Ryan The Hit List Arrow
Rob Grant Colony Penguin
Robert Reed Marrow Orbit

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