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


Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. I missed out on all three opportunities, damnit. But on at least two occasions I came ever so close…

Algebra was a great revelation to me. Arithmetic had always seemed so limiting in that it solved only specific problems. I didn’t want specificity (I realise now) I wanted generality.

I vaguely knew that when I left my village primary school and went to the big school I’d be learning about more complex things. But I couldn’t imagine how "sums" could ever be significantly different from what we were doing. The best I could come up with was that we’d be using larger and larger numbers, a prospect that failed to thrill me. I had trouble with my 9 times table. I wasn’t looking forward to struggling with my 999 times table or greater. But my speculations all proved to be a failure of the imagination.

The magic age of eleven came and went and there I was at the big school and my timetable had weird words in it that I’d never come across before. Chemistry, biology and physics (I’d only heard of "science" before; I didn’t realise it divided up). Latin, French and German. They were languages; I was happy with that concept. Arithmetic, geometry and algebra. Gosh. Sums really were different!

Arithmetic remained as specific and as boring as it had ever been though we learned some new ideas. Roots and powers were thrilling for a moment but the magic quickly died in the tedium of (pre-calculator) calculation. Geometry was difficult for though it was undoubtedly elegant it also seemed somewhat arbitrary (it would be many, many years before I found out just how insightful and profound that vague feeling really was).

But algebra was the queen of studies. It was a breath of fresh air and revelation upon magical revelation poured into my awakening mind. It was arithmetic without numbers, it solved the general case. It was everything I’d been looking for all my intellectual life. The drudgery of calculation vanished and there was only the pure, white light of the idea.

Little did I know what pitfalls awaited me. Little did I know how much remained to be learned. About ten years later the intellectual shutters came down with a mighty crash and I ran headlong into them and severely injured both my pride and my nose for knowledge. Tensors were my stumbling block. To this day I don’t understand them. But at age twelve, that was a long way in my future. I was in love with algebra.

I tried to explain it all to my grandmother; a long-suffering lady who put up with an awful lot from her only grandchild. She was completely bewildered (they hadn’t had algebra when she was a girl, she explained to me. It hadn’t been invented yet. You didn’t need algebra to sneak up on a dinosaur). She listened patiently as I raved on about quadratic equations. I wrote one down with arbitrary coefficients and then explained to her how to solve it. I went through all the steps and much to my surprise I got completely stuck. The results I was deriving made no sense to me.

And that was the first time I hovered on the brink of greatness, but I turned away from it and the opportunity vanished like smoke in the wind.

There were two very big and very important ideas buried in my failure to solve the equation I’d written down. The first was that there existed a class of problem that the techniques I was learning couldn’t cope with. The second, and much more important, was that there existed a class of numbers of which I was previously unaware. I couldn’t solve my equation because solving it involved deriving the square root of a negative number. Negative numbers didn’t bother me, but the roots of negative numbers did.

In order to solve my problem, it was necessary for me to deduce the rules of complex numbers. The equation was solvable in those terms. But rather than attempting to explore the territory opening up beneath my feet, I simply assumed I’d made a mistake somewhere and took it no further. The door to greatness slammed shut.

My grandmother was very understanding and distracted my disappointment with a treat of some kind.

There was nothing new in the idea of complex numbers of course. Mathematicians had known of them for centuries and the field had been thoroughly explored. But that’s not the point. The point is that I’d never heard of them. If I could have deduced their existence and their properties for myself (repeating, albeit unknowingly, the work of the great mathematicians of the past) then I truly would have exhibited genius. I came so close.

Long ago when the world was young, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a book called The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. It was a collection of essays in which he presented his opinions on life, the universe and everything as a series of potted lectures that he delivered to his family as they gathered together around the breakfast table of a morning. Nobody except P. J. O’Rourke has read this book, but it matters not for O’Rourke (as The CEO of the Sofa) has brought it up to date and made the form his own.

O’Rourke is a screamingly funny writer with scathing opinions on life, the universe and everything. In this, his latest essay collection, he pontificates on everything from dope to democracy; from computers to candidates for the Presidency of the USA; from pop music to, er, well, pop music actually. He has a lot to say about Hilary Clinton’s child-rearing abilities (and points out how well her methods can be applied to politicians who are all overgrown children). He also remembers his own upbringing and as a result has a few worrying thoughts about the parenting problems he is now facing:

True [my daughter] is only three. But in eleven brief years we will be faced with the awkward task of explaining to our child why she should behave like Gidget while I, at her age, was paging through On the Road, Junkie, and 120 Days of Sodom with a highlighter pen, making a list of things to do before I shot my family.

The dedication page of Matthew Hughes novel Fools Errant says: To Jack Vance and you don’t have to read far into the book to understand why. In tone, and style and plot and treatment, this story is a typical Jack Vance novel. The same quirky humour, the same obsession with the polite minutiae of life (and its oddities), the same excruciatingly dry wit. Like the best of Vance, this novel is to be enjoyed purely for the way the words work. Plot is quite incidental.

Oh there is a story if you want one – Foppish young Filidor Vesh is rudely removed from his wastrel life by the dwarf Gaskarth who takes him off on a quest across the world. Filidor’s uncle is the Archon of Old Earth and has apparently sent for him. Gaskarth must take Filidor to his uncle and along the way they both fall foul of sociopaths, wild beasts, deranged politics and bizarre food.

None of this matters – it’s just a picaresque adventure, a series of episodes (a few more or a few less wouldn’t have mattered). When the page count is long enough they stop and there is a mighty revelation (the outcome of which I’d guessed round about page 20). No, what matters are the loving portraits of idiosyncrasy and the language in which they are told; the rich, rolling wonderful language, the distilled essence of the master. Jack Vance has an apt pupil in Matthew Hughes.

In Justinian, the thinly pseudonymous H. N. Turtletaub sheds his science fictional skin (as Harry Turtledove) and writes a strictly historical novel. The book tells of the life of Justinian II of Byzantium. He inherited the throne, and was overthrown in a revolution. His nose was cut off and he was sent into exile. Amazingly he came back from exile, regained the throne and spent the next few years taking a terrible revenge on the conspirators who had overthrown him. These bloody excesses left him ever more isolated and another coup saw him disgraced and powerless again. This time his enemies left nothing to chance and he was killed.

These are the simple historical facts (incredible though they may appear to be). Turtletaub places flesh on these dry historical bones and brings the whole era brilliantly to life. The book held me utterly absorbed.

He did it again with Over the Wine Dark Sea. This one is set thirteen years after the death of Alexander the Great. His generals are squabbling over the pieces of his empire and the political situation is quite fraught. Against this background, two cousins from Rhodes set sail at the beginning of the trading season. Their merchant ship has a cargo of ink and papyrus and perfume and peacocks. They sail slowly west, trading as they go (they buy silk and wine). They travel along the coast of Italy where an upstart young army from an insignificant town called Rome is starting to carve out a territory for itself. At the end of the trading season they sail home again with a large profit to show for the voyage.

What gives the novel its special genius is the seamless way that Turtletaub matches all these disparate elements. The political situation has a huge effect on the traders, often dictating the route they must travel in order to avoid trouble. Also the lawlessness that so often sits at the fringes of a War has encouraged the proliferation of pirates and this too must be taken into account. And finally there is the absolute fascination of seeing a society brought to life. I know little about everyday life in ancient Greece. I was enthralled by the details, entranced by the people. Their attitudes and customs were often foreign to me and it was fascinating to see them react to their world.

Vadim is the third novel that Donald James has written about the eponymous Russian detective. Each is complete in itself, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the others. They all take place in a vague 2020. After the fall of communism, Russia endured years of chaos that culminated in the civil war. This war is now several years in the past and Russia is slowly (ever so slowly) trying to put itself back together again.

As the book opens, Russia is in the grip of an epidemic of tuberculosis. Many people have fled abroad, some to the USA, but America is now closing its borders to these immigrants. There is a brisk black market in forged vaccination certificates – just maybe they will fool the immigration authorities. Ellis Island has been reopened. It makes a good isolation ward prior to shipping the poor unfortunates back home again.

Vadim is fortunate. He went to school with Roy Rolkin, the regional governor of the Kola district. He has no illusions about Rolkin’s morality (you don’t become a regional governor without breaking a lot of eggs to make a lot of omelettes) but he overlooks the sadism and the self-interest in favour of his own self-interest.

Rolkin is also chairman of the Murmansk soccer team. Their current striker is past his best and Rolkin wants a replacement. Soccer has become a big thing in the USA and one of the American strikers seems particularly good. Rolkin sends Vadim to America to make the man an offer he can’t refuse.

While in America, Vadim becomes involved in the presidential campaign of Ben Rushton. Rushton wants to pour aid into Russia, to combat the TB, to try and rescue the country from total collapse. His policies are popular with the country as a whole, but the incumbent politicians are less than happy with them. Rushton’s unstable, alcoholic Russian wife and a series of sociopathic murders that surround him threaten to destabilise his campaign. Vadim’s investigation uncovers corruption in high places and a dark link to Russia’s communist past. Dead hands reach into the future, dead souls pass on an evil inheritance. The dénouement is genuinely chilling.

The book’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got politics and it’s even got religion. It’s got all the big topics that you aren’t allowed to talk about at dinner parties. How could it fail to be less than brilliant?

From the Dust Returned is a collection of several early stories by Ray Bradbury with a lot of new linking material to tie them together into a (rather thin) novel. The family have lived for centuries in a house of legend and mystery in Illinois. They are curious and wild – some of them remember when the sphinx first dug her claws into the sands of the Nile; some of them sleep in beds with lids.

The stories were not very memorable to begin with and they have not aged well. The style is heavy and overblown with Too Many Capital Letters In The Middle Of Sentences and far too many adverbs and adjectives to pad out the prose. It reads almost like a Bradbury pastiche and I found it a struggle to get through. This is definitely one of his weakest ever books.

William Sanders’ new novel J is a very traditional SF yarn with a good dose of sex and violence to keep the audience interested. It is set in three parallel worlds. In one, Dr Ann Lucas is a respected NASA scientist suffering a breakdown. As the book opens she is in a mental hospital. In another world, the science fiction novelist Jay Younger is watching her career disintegrate as she spirals deeper into alcoholism. And in the third world (which has been devastated by a nuclear war) Mad Jack is a one-eyed gunwoman and mercenary. Although all three have led different lives in their respective worlds, they are all the same person (if the word "same" means anything in such circumstances, but those philosophical waters are a bit too deep for me to swim in and even Sanders doesn’t venture too far in).

Somehow the continuum thins around their personalities and eventually they all three come together in their struggle to survive. But it seems there are those who really do want them to die. Who are the strange men in the silvery grey suits? Is there yet a fourth continuum involved and what is its relationship to the other three?

In SF terms there isn’t anything particularly original about the speculations in the book. There are no surprising revelations (at least, the revelations didn’t surprise me; your mileage may vary). Nevertheless the book kept me turning the pages, frantic to find out what happened next. The story is exciting, the characters are well drawn and the tale is well told.

For eighteen years, Gardner Dozois has been producing a very fat annual collection of what he considers to be the year’s best science fiction. He leads from strength and even his weaker anthologies tend to stand head and shoulders above all the rest. The reputation of this series is such that it is generally considered to be definitive and the competition to be represented in it is fierce. But Dozois is quite impartial in his selections and doesn’t bias the anthologies towards a contents page stuffed with big names. The big names are here of course – Ursula Le Guin, Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton – but there are also writers of whom I have never heard – Albert Cowdrey, Eliot Fintushel, Severna Park. Not surprisingly, their stories are often considerably stronger than those by the so-called big names. (To my mind, Le Guin has written nothing of interest for at least thirty years and simply coasts on her reputation).

I always make a point of buying the Dozois anthologies. They are the only collections that I make a genuine effort to seek out. That says a lot about their consistently high quality, I think. This year’s is just as good as all the rest. Trust me; you won’t be disappointed.

The Last Hero is a short story set in the Discworld. It concerns Cohen the Barbarian who has decided that it is time to return the gift of fire to the gods. With interest.

Unfortunately it seems that his plan to blow up the gods might destroy the whole of the disc and an expedition is hurriedly mounted to prevent him from succeeding in his mission.

Captain Carrot, Rincewind, Leonard of Quirm and the Librarian hold the fate of the disc in their hands (and feet).

It goes without saying that the story is hilariously told and brilliantly observed. Pterry’s genius lies in his close observation of the foibles of real people and his ability to translate those foibles recognisably into the characters who live on the disc. We laugh at them, albeit uneasily, for too often we recognise ourselves reflected as in a glass darkly. But we never laugh with them, for they themselves do not know that they are funny. As far as they are concerned their problems are real problems, their gods are real gods and their anthropomorphic personifications are real anthropomorphic personifications as well. Only an outsider can laugh. And we do. Lots.

The book is handsomely made and oversized, the better to show off the illustrations by Paul Kidby. And wonderful pictures they are too. Cohen and his gang (the Silver Horde) are brilliantly rendered; every wrinkle, every paunch, each bald patch and rheumatic joint are lovingly detailed; Ponder Stibbons is a geek; Lord Vetinari is chilling and Death has a beautiful kitten.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is a children’s novel set in the discworld. At some point before the story proper begins, a group of rats living in a very polluted rubbish dump have become sentient (there are hints that the pollution was the cause of this sentience in some unspecified manner). The rats name themselves after labels from the items in the rubbish dump. Thus we have a rat called Peaches and one called Hamnpork, one called Darktan, one called Nourishing and one called Bestbefore. Maurice is a cat who has also achieved sentience (to tell you how would be a spoiler so I won’t). Maurice and the rats together with a young man called Keith have set up a Pied Piper of Hamelin scam. The rats invade a town, Keith plays his flute and marches them out again and they all get share the money that he is paid.

The story proper takes place in the discworld town of Bad Blintz, and the scam is about to unravel…

It may be a children’s book but that doesn’t stop it being both acutely observed and screamingly funny. All of Pterry’s usual wit is on display and there are lots of jokes about widdling.

Twenty years after I had shown off my inability to solve quadratic equations to my grandmother, the opportunity for greatness knocked again. This time I was working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Our task was to build a database of environmentally significant chemicals. (As an aside, a few years after all this, a dioxin manufacturing plant at Seveso in Italy exploded and caused enormous environmental damage. Information from the UNEP database helped enormously with the clean up effort. I remain quite proud of my association with UNEP).

In order to build the database, we accepted input from all the member states, encouraging them to ransack their archives for potentially useful data. Soon the information was flowing in from a wide variety of sources. This was in the very early days of computers (they were still rare and expensive beasts that occupied large air conditioned rooms) and not all the data we received was in computer readable form. Transcribing the "manual" data was relatively straightforward (though it remained a semi-skilled and labour-intensive intellectual exercise). However the thing that really caused us problems was the computer readable data we received for it arrived in a wide variety of (often mutually incompatible) formats. Reconciling all this and getting it into a shape that made it adequate for OUR database format (obviously greatly superior to theirs) was an enormously complex and difficult task.

I suspect that our efforts represented one of the very first large scale exercises in processing enormous quantities of incompatible data from multiple heterogeneous sources. Certainly there were no generally accepted solutions to this problem and we were forced to invent our own. We succeeded – and I wrote a paper about the solution, for it seemed to me that others might have similar problems and maybe a similar solution might help. The paper was published in a computer research journal of enormous obscurity and as far as I know, nobody read it (it’s the only paper I published for which I received no requests for reprints).

Today, with the proliferation of computers and the ever-increasing necessity for those computers to exchange and share data with one another, the problem has reappeared and all the difficulties that we had to address back in the 1970s have again come to the fore. Two or three years ago, a general solution was found, a solution that can easily be applied to any and every such problem of data exchange (and a lot of other related problems as well). This solution is called XML.

Don’t worry if you haven’t heard about it (though I promise you, if you are involved in the computer field, XML is in your future). The point is that XML is a beautifully elegant and, as is so often the case with breakthrough ideas, beautifully simple solution to the problem.

And I didn’t invent it.

You may have noticed that I haven’t given you a reference to the paper I wrote about my problems with the UNEP database. There’s a reason for that. Reading it today is an embarrassing exercise (for me at least). Time and again I can see my younger self flirting with the ideas that eventually formed the backbone of XML and completely failing to spot their significance. It was a failure of imagination exactly akin to the one I exhibited with my quadratic equation only this time there really was a genuinely original idea waiting to be discovered. And I had absolutely no idea at all that it was there.

I wonder if there’s anything else I’ve missed in the intervening years?

P. J. O’Rourke The CEO of the Sofa Picador
Matthew Hughes Fools Errant Aspect
H. N. Turtletaub Justinian Tor
H. N. Turtletaub Over the Wine Dark Sea Tor
Donald James Vadim Arrow
Ray Bradbury From the Dust Returned Morrow
William Sanders J IPublish
Gardner Dozois The Year’s Best Science Fiction
18th Annual Collection
St. Martins
Terry Pratchett The Last Hero Gollancz
Terry Pratchett The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents Doubleday

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