Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (pecuniae minuant)

Don’t Bank On It

I have sold my house and I am therefore temporarily rich. One of the big advantages of not owning a house is that you do not have to pay rates on it. Up to now, I’ve been paying the rates by direct debit – it seemed the easiest thing to do. Auckland City Council simply took whatever they needed, whenever they needed it without bothering me, and everyone was happy. However since I am of a suspicious nature, I decided to cancel Auckland City Council’s direct debit authority once the house was sold, so that even if they wanted to, they would no longer be able to collect money from me. I preferred to do it that way – I didn’t fancy having them take money they were not entitled to (by mistake of course) because then I’d have to spend ages arguing with them about getting it back. Given how slowly the wheels of bureaucracy grind, that could take forever and would probably require an infinite number of forms to be filled in. So I decided that I would simply not allow transactions like this to happen in the first place.

Making that decision was my first mistake.

I wrote a letter to the Bank of New Zealand. That was my second mistake.

"Please cancel the direct debit authority for Auckland City Council," said the letter.

I received no acknowledgement (nobody ever replies to letters), so I sent them a secure email via their internet banking site. This time I got a reply confirming that the authority had been cancelled.

And so it was done.

The Year the Cloud Fell by Kurt R. A. Giambastiani is a rather ingenious alternate history novel set in an America that never was. It is 1886 and George Armstrong Custer, the President of the United States, sends his son on a perilous mission into the Cheyenne territories. George Junior flies off in an experimental airship. An inopportune thunderstorm wrecks the ship and George Junior is captured by the Cheyenne, who see this as a heaven sent opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength. However a wise woman of the nation is not convinced that all is as it seems. She believes that the prisoner has been sent by the Thunder Beings in the sky and that a crisis much deeper and more profound than a simple war with the white men is looming.

So far so straight forward and apart from the mention of an airship this might be almost any penny dreadful western novel. What raises it above the ordinary, however, is the sheer audacity of Giambastiani’s vision. In this alternate America the war between the Indian and the white men has dragged on in a never ending stalemate. Neither side can defeat the other for they are both quite evenly matched. The dinosaurs never died out in North America and they occupy the same ecological niche that horses occupy in Europe. Since time immemorial the Cheyenne have tamed and ridden the great lizards. This gives them an advantage in warfare – they are mounted and agile and skilled in the arts of fighting. The lizards make them more than a match for the white man’s cavalry. The war drags on endlessly and the Cheyenne occupy vast tracts of land and effectively prevent the expansion of the white men into the west of the country. Something has to give, and now in 1886 the crisis is at hand.

It’s a rousing tale, rousingly told.

Neal Barrett has written a sequel to his earlier novel The Prophecy Machine. It is called The Treachery of Kings and again we share the adventures of Finn the lizard maker, Julia Jessica Slagg, the mechanical lizard with the brain of a ferret and Letitia, Finn’s newlie lover, the mycer girl.

The Prince of Fydexia has commissioned Finn to build a wondrous clock, a gift to the King of Heldessia (with whom Fydexia has been at war for generations). Finn builds the clock, but to his dismay is ordered to deliver it personally. He travels through the war zone to Heldessia but quickly falls foul of the King and his badgie guards. Religion and politics don’t mix and Finn makes a mess of both of them. Things have never looked blacker – even Julia Jessica Slagg doesn’t seem able to help this time…

It’s junk of course. Well written junk (Barrett is never less than a competent writer) but don’t go looking for subtlety here because there isn’t any. There’s a lot of great bits of business (indeed the whole book is really nothing more than a series of stock scenes linked by great bits of business) and it’s enormous fun to read, but it’s terribly shallow and contrived.

On the other hand, A Different Vintage is a lizard of quite a different colour. It’s a collection of some of Barrett’s short stories; most of them dating from the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them were first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a journal noted for the stylishness of its material (particularly during that era). The stories are quirky, poetic and challenging and sometimes hard to read (though they repay the effort); quite unlike the mind candy that is The Treachery of Kings. This kind of writing is what allows Barrett to get away with the occasional volume of pulp, mere (HAH!) simple craftsmanship (written, perhaps, just for the money). A Different Vintage proves him to be an artist as well as a craftsman.

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson opens in Thailand in the 2020s. Out of nowhere, an enormous monument appears in the jungle. It bears a plaque commemorating a military victory in the year 2041, twenty years in the future…

It turns out to be the first of many. They are quickly dubbed chronoliths and Kuin, the mysterious military leader whose victories they commemorate, inspires cults all around the world, though as yet nobody knows who he is, for his campaigns have not yet begun. The chronoliths spread out from south east Asia as Kuin’s military conquests expand his empire. More and more of the chronoliths appear in major cities and cause huge devastation and loss of life. Nevertheless the cult of Kuin continues to thrive though he himself remains elusive.

The novel finishes twenty years after it begins. Soon the first chronolith will begin its journey into the past. Where is Kuin?

The mechanics of the plot are a sheer delight, but that isn’t what gives the book it’s major strength. For me, the attraction was in both the very human story of the life and times of the viewpoint character and also the subtle fascination of the intellectual ideas it explores - how does feedback influence the relationship between cause and effect?

About ten days after I had cancelled the direct debit authority for Auckland City Council, I received an irate letter from Sky Television. They had gone to my bank to collect their payment, as they have been doing every month for a decade or so, only to be told that their charges were refused. The bank could not pay them.

Well these things happen. There are always hiccups. I wrote a cheque for the outstanding amount and thought no more about it.

Two weeks after that my payment to my ISP was refused, closely followed by payments to my insurance company and the power company. I began to panic – what was going on? I contacted the Bank of New Zealand again.

Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

"Hello. I am a robot telephone answering machine, specially designed by the Bank of New Zealand to frustrate you. Please select a random number from the following list of extraordinarily vague choices…"

After choosing the appropriate options from the voice mail messages (and a few inappropriate ones as well), I was placed on hold and remarkably unsoothing muzak was played into my earhole. Every so often the robot came back on the line and informed me how important my call was. As a result of all this, by the time a human being arrived on the scene my already seething temper had become positively volcanic.

"Several direct debit payments have been refused recently. Can you please check up on this and tell me why?"

"Of course sir – just a moment."

Clatter, clatter, clatter, click, click as keyboards were keyed and mice were moused.

"You haven’t got any direct debit authorities sir."

"What! That’s ridiculous. What about all these companies that are trying to get their money through direct debits? What’s happened to them all?"

"There are no direct debit authorities on your accounts sir. Probably the application forms haven’t been processed yet. You do realise that you often have to wait a few days before the direct debits are activated after the forms have been filled in?"

"No – these aren’t new ones," I explained. "They’ve been in place for quite some time."

"No, that’s not right," said the Bank of New Zealand person. "There aren’t any direct debit authorities on your account, so they must still be working their way through the system."

"Don’t be silly," I said. "I’ve been paying my insurance premiums by direct debit for twenty years. Look at my transactions for the last couple of months – you’ll see heaps of direct debits."

Clatter, clatter, clatter, click, click.

"Oh yes, there they are. Obviously you must have cancelled them."

Light began to dawn.

"No," I said. "I issued instructions for one direct debit authority to be cancelled. I think you must have cancelled all of them by mistake."

"Oh no sir, that can’t possibly happen. You must have asked us to cancel them. There are no direct debit authorities on your account so you must have cancelled them all."

"Don’t be ridiculous," I said. "I’ve got the letter here." I read it to him.

"I’ll look into it sir, and ring you back."

Click. Huuummm.

I hung up the phone and waited.

Wheelers is a collaborative novel by two writers better known for their non-fiction. Ian Stewart is a Professor of Mathematics who writes columns for Scientific American and who has published many popular science books. Jack Cohen is a biologist who has also had a long and eminent career as an academic. He’s blotted his copy book a lot though – he is a long time SF fan and has been a popular speaker at many a British SF convention. He has been the power behind the SF throne of many a novel, in that he can’t resist providing the hard scientific advice that has raised a lot of SF books head and shoulders above the competition. He devised much of the clever biological speculation that made Harry Harrison’s Eden novels so memorable, for instance.

Now, with Wheelers these two non-fiction giants have turned their hand to story telling with, it must be admitted, mixed success.

It is the twenty third century. The world is recovering from a technology meltdown caused by a generation of "smart" computers that proved to be too smart for their own good. The world is now quite under populated and the Moon and the asteroids are largely the province of a curious Zen Buddhist offshoot cult who make a very rich living mining them.

Prudence Odingo is an ex-archaeologist and something of a recluse. Her early career was ruined partly by her own headstrong behaviour and partly by the wheelings and dealings of her post-graduate supervisor. She has spent many of the years since then in space. She returns to Earth from an expedition to Callisto where she has excavated wheeled artefacts that seem to be more than 100,000 years old.

In a dramatic courtroom scene, the wheelers come abruptly to life and provide evidence of their extraterrestrial origins by gliding smoothly from the courtroom on anti-gravity beams. It takes the world by storm.

But a new crisis arises. A comet from the Oort cloud is heading towards the inner solar system. It seems likely that it will collide with Jupiter. To the consternation of observers on Earth, the four inner moons of Jupiter suddenly change their orbits and their altered gravitational influence diverts the comet. Now it is heading directly for Earth.

It seems obvious that some alien intelligence (probably connected with the Wheelers, given that they were discovered on one of Jupiter’s moons) is manipulating the comets. Perhaps it is a declaration of war. Prudence and the Zen Buddhists and the academic who once destroyed her career are all charged with making contact with the aliens and attempting to persuade them to modify the Jupiter moon orbits again in order to prevent the comet hitting the Earth. It turns into a nail biting race against time…

It’s a great plot, with great characters and the tension is admirably maintained right through to the end (will the comet hit the Earth or won’t it?). Certainly the book has a lot going for it. Unfortunately the authors inexperience with fiction shows – they fall so much in love with the ideas the novel dramatises that they can’t resist the urge to explain in far too much detail and consequently the book fills up with great big wodges of infodumps that slow the story down to nothing flat. However I can’t condemn it out of hand – both authors are superb writers of non-fiction; brilliant explainers of often complex ideas and the infodumps are quite fascinating in themselves and beautifully written to boot. They just don’t belong in a slam-bang novel like this one.

Lemady is subtitled Episodes of a Writer’s Life and is a rambling, idiosyncratic stream of consciousness discourse which is probably the closest Keith Roberts ever came to writing an autobiography. Roberts is famous as the author of Pavane, an alternate history novel that brought him fame (though little fortune). Many of his other novels are worthy though they are very hard to find having been published mainly by very small presses with very limited print runs (though Wildside Press has brought several of the rarer novels back into print and they are now easily obtainable through Amazon.Com). One reason for this was Robert’s rather irascible character – he had a positive genius for alienating his colleagues and sometimes he seemed to go out of his way to be difficult. Lemady contains its moments of bitchiness (he is quite scathing about Kerosina, a small press which almost single handedly kept many of his books in print in the 1970s) – but despite this a certain grace shines through. Nobody who could write such beautiful novels can be entirely devoid of soul and insight. Many of the obituaries published on his death concentrated on the negative aspects of his character – it seemed that even after he was dead, Roberts kept the enemies that he made in life, and those enemies proved to be very unforgiving. Well; distance lends enchantment. I never met Roberts, but I admired his books hugely and Lemady adds an extra dimension that I for one am very pleased to have discovered.

The Free Lunch is another of Spider Robinson’s Heinlein impressions – and a damn good one it is as well! Dreamworld is a future theme park where all your dreams come true (under carefully controlled scientific conditions). Mike is a young, disillusioned boy who needs to escape from a reality that has become unbearable for him. He is a typical Heinlein juvenile; mature beyond his years with a vast knowledge of scientific and engineering principles and a quirky, clever mind. He manages to infiltrate Dreamworld where he plans to live a lotus-eating life away from the worries and responsibilities of reality. Underground in Dreamworld, he meets Annie, another refugee, who has been living there for more than thirteen years. She becomes his mentor.

It soon starts to become clear that there is a crisis in Dreamworld. Every evening, more staff leave the theme park than arrived in the morning – and the staff who leave are all trolls. Where are they coming from? Mike and Annie explore various hypotheses, each more outré than the last. But the truth turns out to be even stranger than anything they had imagined.

It’s a great slam-bang adventure. Those with eyes to see will find it stuffed to the gunwales with Heinleinesque touches (Robinson can’t resist the homage) but unlike some of his other books these touches aren’t too overt and by and large they don’t get in the way. He’s also curbed his self-indulgent tendency to write self-referential novels full of science fictional in-jokes (I suspect he’s found that they sell only to a very limited audience). As a result, The Free Lunch is one of his best novels in years and I strongly recommend it.

Much to my surprise, the Bank of New Zealand person did eventually ring back. I was impressed; this is rare in my experience.

"The direct debits were all cancelled on the 17th," he said, "which was the day after the date on your letter. So it does look as though something has gone wrong with the system and they accidentally cancelled all of them instead of just the one you requested."

"Can you reinstate them, please?"

"No, the banking rules won’t let me do that. You have to go back to all the organisations that need a direct debit authority. You ask them for a direct debit form and when you get it you fill it in and send it back to them so that they can lodge it with us."

"So you stuffed up, but I have to do all the work to fix your mistakes?"

"Well," he said, sounding a little embarrassed, "yes – if you put it like that."

"Names," I said grimly. "Give me names and phone numbers and email addresses for the people involved in all this. Give me the names of their managers and the names of their managers."

He was reluctant – but I got my list. I was given the name and email address of my personal banker and the name and email address of the Area Customer Services Manager. Up to that point, I hadn’t known that I had a personal banker – it had never occurred to the Bank of New Zealand that I might find this information interesting and useful, so they had never got round to telling me about it.

I sent details of my case to the Area Customer Services Manager. The email practically melted the screen as I read it back. I felt it was satisfactory and I pressed the Send button.

Over the course of the next few days I received grovelling telephone calls and emails apologising for the error, but no practical help at all. I still had to do the rounds of the people I owed money to and try to sort out the mess myself. Also the chickens were coming home to roost now, and I was being charged late payment fees – so I was doubly out of pocket through no fault of my own. Grimly I reported this to the Area Customer Services Manager of the Bank of New Zealand and demanded action.

I received a letter from the Area Customer Services Manager. It apologised profusely for the financial embarrassment I was going through. All procedures had been tightened to ensure that this kind of thing could never happen again. All the staff involved were being given counselling (counselling!! Dear God, what is the world coming to?). I didn’t believe a word of it – I’m sure that they did absolutely nothing; they just said they’d done it in order to make me feel good.

The letter went on to say that in view of the fact that the error was clearly the bank’s, they had decided to waive my bank fees for the month and to pay me 50% of the value of the cancelled direct debit payments as compensation for their blunder. Also included with the letter were letters to all the companies involved explaining that the error had been made by the bank and asking that any late payment fees be billed to the bank rather than to me. I was requested to forward these letters to the relevant companies should it prove necessary. There were no stamps included with the letters. Postage charges were obviously my responsibility.

Charles de Lint operates best in that twilight world where our reality and faerie intersect. However those beings from across the border (from the myth time as he calls it in Forests of the Heart) are not the fey creatures of popular fairy tales. They exhibit all too human emotions; greed and lust and petty minded violence. Somehow that makes them all the more believable.

In Ireland they are called the Gentry, ancient spirits of the land, and they are amoral and very dangerous. When the Irish emigrated to the new world, some of the Gentry went with them. But America already had spirits of its own, the Manitou, and the Gentry had nowhere to call their own any more.

Bettina is a part Indian, part Mexican girl who has moved to Canada. She lives in the artist colony of Kellygnow on the outskirts of Newford. She sees the Gentry as dark men, squatting in the snow, smoking cigarettes and waiting and watching. Something in their attitude reminds her the wolves she knew in her childhood. She calls them los lobos. Those few others in Newford possessed of the ability to see them call them the hard men. They congregate in folk clubs where Celtic music is played. Always they huddle together, drinking canned Guinness and smoking their endless cigarettes. Sometimes they pick fights for no good reason. Hunter, the proprietor of a music store, meets Ellie Jones, a sculptor. The hard men beat him up and warn him off her. Although she doesn’t know it yet, Ellie is under their protection for they have a use for her.

Ellie is invited to Kellygnow where she is given a commission – she is to cast a metal mask, a replica of an old, broken Celtic mask. The hope is that with the new mask, a powerful Celtic earth spirit can be reincarnated Perhaps then the hard men will finally gain a proper place for themselves.

But the plans go awry and Bettina, Ellie, Hunter and their friends are joined together with the manitou in a hard and dangerous fight that plays itself out in the cold, wintery streets of Newford and in the myth time, the spirit lands that surround the town.

Normally I have little patience with this kind of thing, particularly when it involves terribly trendy things like Celtic culture and myth. All too often the thing turns into a new age hodgepodge of touchy-feely syrup. However that never happens with de Lint. There’s always a hard edge, always a cold reality at the heart of even the deepest myths and he never loses sight of the relationships between myth, superstition, magic and the mundane need to eat breakfast and go to the toilet. Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to his books and why I devour them so avidly. He seldom disappoints and Forests of the Heart is one of his very, very best.

However while de Lint’s novels are generally superb, I’ve found that his short stories often leave a lot to be desired. The stories collected in Moonlight and Vines are all very similar to each other in terms of plot and mood. In far too many of them the viewpoint character is depressed, but soon cheers up after getting a lecture about how wonderful life can be from a dead person (who is often a relative). Sometimes, just for variety, the viewpoint character is the dead person. In other stories, beggars on the street or casual acquaintances made in a nightclub turn out to be supernatural beings. One quickly gets the impression that Newford is so full of creatures from mythology that there is no room left for the people! I found Moonlight and Vines quite disappointing.

The Grand Complication is a wonderfully oddball book. Alexander Short is a librarian possessed of arcane interests. He is a scholar of the eighteenth century, enamoured of the essayists. He has a notebook tethered to his coat and everywhere he goes he takes notes on the things that he sees. Since he lives in a run down tenement where many a drug deal takes place, his note taking is regarded with suspicion and sometimes gets him into trouble.

Henry James Jesson III is a bibliophile who indulges his eccentric passions quite freely for he is rich enough to get away with anything he wants to do. He has come into possession of a cabinet of curiosities which chronicles the life of an eighteenth century inventor. Unfortunately the cabinet is incomplete, one item is missing.

Since Jesson feels uncomfortable in the modern world of computer based library indexes, he hires Alexander Short to research the missing item. For all his eighteenth century affectations, Short is perfectly at home with computer catalogues and he embraces his task with enormous zeal. A series of fortuitous discoveries quickly identifies the missing item and Jesson and Short embark on a quest to find it and restore the cabinet to its original glory.

Or do they? There are wheels within wheels and Jesson is curiously uninformative about the cabinet. It begins to look as if there are grander, more complex designs behind the scenes. Jesson and Short himself are both manipulating and being manipulated.

The book is replete with arcana. There are fascinating discourses on how to manufacture pop-up books, the mechanics of hidden compartments and the measurement of time. I’m not at all sure that the mish-mash makes sense but my goodness me it holds the attention.

So too does The Mummy Congress though for quite a different reason. The book is a history of the practice of mummification. We tend to think of this as a purely Egyptian phenomenon, but that isn’t the case at all. Other civilisations have sought to cheat death in the same way. Even in the modern era we find the preserved bodies of Lenin and Mao and other lesser political corpses still leering over the people they once ruled. The centuries have also presented us with an enormous numbers of cases of bodies being preserved by purely natural means – the most obvious example being the frozen corpse of a neolithic hunter found recently in the Alps and also the many preserved bodies dug up from peat bogs and the like.

Heather Pringle examines these and many other cases with enormous humour and gusto and, it must be admitted, just a little bit of grue. I found it absolutely riveting.

It is now just over a month since the direct debit fiasco happened and I think I’ve finally got all the authorities reinstated (these things take a frustratingly long time). Needless to say, the new authorities are not with the Bank of New Zealand. I don’t trust the Bank of New Zealand to get anything right and I am now in the process of transferring my financial affairs to a different bank, one that will hopefully prove to be a little more trustworthy.

I no longer find it surprising that the Bank of New Zealand teetered on the verge of bankruptcy a few years ago. I always wondered how a bank managed to lose money. Now I know. They only employ incompetents.

Kurt R. A. Giambastiani The Year the Cloud Fell Roc
Neal Barrett Jr. The Treachery of Kings Bantam
Neal Barrett Jr. A Different Vintage Subterranean Press
Robert Charles Wilson The Chronoliths Tor
Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen Wheelers Earthlight
Keith Roberts Lemady Wildside Press
Spider Robinson The Free Lunch Tor
Charles de Lint Forests of the Heart Tor
Charles de Lint Moonlight and Vines Tor
Allen Kurzweil The Grand Complication Hyperion
Heather Pringle The Mummy Congress Fourth Estate

Previous Contents Next