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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (fiji acerbus)

Paradise Revisited

I was off on my travels again; this time to Fiji, one of my favourite places, the land where the Spanish concept of manana is considered far too hasty a philosophy.

The instructions said: "Pick up your ticket from the Air Pacific office at Auckland airport." I looked, but I couldn’t find an Air Pacific office anywhere.

I went to the airport Help Desk. "Where’s the Air Pacific office, please?"

"There isn’t one," said the Lady behind the desk. "United handles all Air Pacific bookings."

"Oh. OK – where’s the United Airlines office then?"

"Just next door," she said. "They’re closed."

I checked. The lights were off, the grille was down. Nobody home. The Help Desk Lady flipped through a book of words searching for alternatives. She was determined to Help me. As she turned the pages, a diagram caught my eye.

"Oh look," I said, pointing. "Air Pacific."

"Oh yes," said the Help Desk Lady, bewildered. "They have got an office here. I never knew that before."

We examined the page together and mapped out a route to the Air Pacific office. I followed it – down the corridor, up the stairs, turn left. There was a door with Air Pacific written upon it in large, friendly letters. The door was locked. I pounded upon it. Nobody home.

I went back to the Help Desk Lady and reported my lack of success. "Oh, how embarrassing," she said. "However I’m sure there will be somebody there soon."

The queue at the check in counter grew. People with Air Pacific tickets presented them and were duly checked in and assigned seats. They strolled off, flourishing their boarding passes proudly. An idea occurred to me – perhaps I should ask a check-in person about my ticket. I joined the queue.

"Sorry," said the check-in person. "I work for Qantas. You’ll have to wait for the Air Pacific people. Goodness knows where they are. I got called in at the last minute because nobody had turned up to check this flight in."

I trudged back to the Help Desk Lady. As I got there, the United Airlines office opened.

"Are you the Air Pacific agents?" I asked the Lady at the counter.


"I need to pick up a ticket."

"The office is down the corridor, up the stairs and turn left."

"I went there. It’s locked. There’s nobody in."

She picked up the phone and dialled. Nobody answered.

"They haven’t arrived yet," she said. "Try again later."

People streamed past me, Air Pacific tickets clutched in their hands. They didn’t know how lucky they were. The United Airlines Lady picked up the phone and dialled again. It rang, and rang and rang and rang. Finally the ringing woke someone. Annoyed, they answered the phone in order to shut it up.

"Hello, Sarah," said the United Airlines Lady. "Have you got a ticket for Mr Robson?"

She listened to a long explanation. "They’ll bring it down soon," she said to me.

As I waited, vast hordes of people checked themselves in to fly to Fiji. I was very jealous, and mildly worried that the aeroplane might run out of seats. There were an awful lot of people…

Eventually Sarah appeared with an envelope. "Mr Robson?"


She gave me the envelope. I extracted my ticket and checked in. At last! I was going to Fiji.

The flight was uneventful and we landed at Nadi on time. I presented myself at the immigration desk with my passport and completed immigration form. The form had a spelling mistake on it – in the customs declaration section, the word "tobacco" was spelt "tabacco". I decided not to comment on it in case they took umbrage.

The immigration officer was a trappist monk who was taking a correspondence course in telepathy.

"Hello," I said, proffering my documents.

He glared at me and picked the papers up. He typed some incantations into his computer and frowned at the screen. He stamped my passport and scribbled on it. He glared at me again (he hated me) and then gave me my passport back.

"Thank you."

He said not a word. As I walked away, I could feel him remembering me so that he could hate me all over again when he got home.

A new thriller by Chris Ryan always passes a pleasant couple of hours or so. His books certainly aren’t literature, and they have no particular depth but my goodness me they pack an exciting punch. The Watchman is pretty much the mixture as before. Alex Temple, an SAS officer is called in by MI5 to track down and eliminate (read kill) an assassin who is murdering high ranking MI5 officers. It soon becomes clear that the assassin is an ex-agent that MI5 had infiltrated into the IRA. Now it seems that he has turned his back on his old allegiances and is killing his old colleagues on behalf of the IRA.

The novel concentrates on the chase, on Temple’s background and the events that have brought him to this task. And eventually it makes the same journey into the past and the motives of the assassin that Temple is pursuing. The twist in the tail at the end (and the revelation of the real motives of all concerned) is enormously satisfying. This really is an incredibly skilfully written thriller. You can feel yourself being manipulated, but you don’t care – you just want to know what happens next!

A minor figure in the British SF scene of the 1960s and 1970s was Kyril Bonfiglioli who was for a time the editor of a magazine called Science Fantasy. He published some of Christopher Priest’s early stories and writers such as Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss were regular contributors (it didn’t hurt that they were also close friends of Bon’s). In real life, Bon was an art dealer and he made a precarious living wheeling and dealing. His greatest coup, one that brought him a small fortune which he quickly spent, was discovering a Tintoretto that he bought for next to nothing and sold for vast sums. He lived in a house with 27 rooms and he drove a Rolls Royce.

In between doing all of this, Bon wrote three novels about the Hon. Charles Mortdecai, a degenerate aristocrat, amoral art dealer, epicurean, assassin and knave about Piccadilly. A fourth novel, left unfinished when Bon died was later completed by Craig Brown (who?) but the joins show. The original three novels have been republished in an omnibus edition as The Mortdecai Trilogy.

The books read like a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and Chris Ryan (q.v.). Moments of sheer farce and brilliant wit and an incredible use of the language rub shoulders with quite graphic ultra-violence. It’s Wooster and Jeeves with mayhem and death. It’s utterly brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny.

I enjoyed the Mortdecai novels so much that I purchased The Mortdecai ABC, a kind of potted biography by Bon’s widow. It contains an alphabetised list of important things about Bon and his books, his editorials from Science Fantasy, some short stories, and letters to and from Bon and his friends. He had great plans for Mortdecai and the outlines of several (alas unwritten) books were left behind in his papers. We can only be sad that he died before the plans could come to fruition.

Malcolm Pryce’s first novel Aberystwyth Mon Amour not only has a clever title, it positively oozes cleverness from every paragraph. Normally this would put me off a book (I hate it when the authorial voice shines through saying "Look at me! Aren’t I just the cat’s pyjamas?"), but this one is so clever and so hugely funny that I’m prepared to forgive it.

Several schoolboys have been murdered in Aberystwyth. Louie Knight is the town’s only private detective and he is determined to find out what lies behind the disappearances. He suspects that Lovespoon, the Welsh teacher at the local school, Grand Wizard of the druids, and the controlling power behind everything that happens in Aberystwyth, is responsible. Lovespoon was a hero of the war against Patagonia and his meteoric rise through the druidic ranks can be attributed to that – but his past holds a dark secret, and Myfanwy Montez, the famous night club singer seems to know something about it. One of the dead schoolboys also appears to have been in touch with Gwenno Guevara, the shadowy revolutionary, and that adds an extra dimension of danger as Louie is drawn ever deeper into the mystery.

The cover blurb has an extract from a review in the Times Literary Supplement which describes the book as: "…the Famous Five meets Raymond Chandler." It is a description that strikes me as particularly apt.

I was staying at the Hotel Tokatoka which proudly proclaims itself to be both a hotel and a resort. This means that there is a large swimming pool with a restaurant and bar by the side of it. Swimmers can actually swim right up to the bar, order a drink and swim away with it to drink elsewhere. In the centre of the pool is a stage equipped with large amplifiers and every night the entertainment blasts out keeping weary travellers such as myself awake, and frightening the geckoes who live on the walls. (Every room in every hotel in Fiji has geckoes that run busily up and down the walls and across the ceilings. They live off mosquitoes and creepy-crawlies. Every tourist in Fiji loves the geckoes who live on the walls).

My bathroom had a full complement of small scurrying insects that were obviously unpalatable, for the geckoes who live on the walls ignored them completely. The insects looked terribly busy but remarkably inefficient as they scurried backwards and forwards repeatedly covering the same ground. I sprayed them with water but it made no difference – they just altered their scurrying path slightly. So I sprayed them with the insect repellent I’d brought with me. Repulsed, they went away. Faint shrieks from next door suggested they had found a new home. I wished they’d gone and inflicted the death of a thousand itches on the band in the centre of the pool. The water would have been no barrier at all. But such was not to be. I went to bed and fell asleep to the soothing rhythms of Twist and Shout played at a thousand decibels.

On my second night in Fiji, the entertainment changed for the better. This time it was provided by a cultural group from the Cook Islands. The band pounded the drums with a percussive intensity that was impossible to resist. All over the pool area people jogged in time. One small boy accompanied the band by beating on the table (and very good he was too). Eventually his parents stopped him from doing it and he spent the rest of the evening playing the drums silently in mid air.

Then the dancing girls came on. Each had long flowing hair intertwined with garlands of flowers. They wore grass skirts with belts of leaves resting snugly on their hips. They shimmied and shook to the rhythm of the drums, bouncing their bottoms to a drumming that suddenly seemed strangely erotic. Then the drumming intensified as the warriors arrived. They stamped their feet and screamed a challenge. They shook their weapons at us and the drums pounded out a never-ending, heart-racing, increasingly frenetic rhythm that rose and rose and rose to a crashing crescendo.

It was, quite simply, superb.

Riding high on the success of An Instance of the Fingerpost, Ian Pears has now published The Dream of Scipio to great critical acclaim. However I must confess I found it less than enthralling.

There are three principal characters: Manlius Hippomanes, an aristocrat who witnesses the collapse of Roman civilization in the west in the fifth century, Olivier de Noyen, a fourteenth century poet who lives in the time of the plague of the Black Death, and Julien Barneuve, an official in the Vichy government in the second world war. There are philosophical links between all three men and the narrative jumps constantly between incidents in all of their lives, intertwining grand tragedies and personal histories with a certain mystery lying at the heart of it.

Unfortunately the book wears its scholarship too heavily and the religious wrangling and poetic discourse becomes tedious and often seemingly irrelevant to the modern lifestyle. It is hard to follow the intricacies of the argument. The book is too long and far too introspective.

I’m very fond of detective stories and I’m very fond of science fiction stories. Obviously a science fiction detective story would push all my buttons at once. Depressingly they are very thin on the ground. It is extremely difficult to write good, traditional whodunit detective novels in the SF and fantasy genres. After all, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of having the detective hero whip out a special device to unmask the murderer! However it can be done, if you put your mind to it, and one of the very best practitioners of the art was Randall Garrett. He wrote a series of ten stories (and one novel) set in an alternate universe where Richard the Lionheart was not killed in the crusades, and the Plantagenate kings have ruled in an unbroken line from the twelfth century to the present day. The laws of magic and ESP have been codified, but the rules of physics remain largely unknown. The detective hero is Lord Darcy and he and his assistant Master Sorcerer Sean O’Lochlainn combine their occult skills and uncanny deductive powers to solve a series of terrible crimes. The King’s Justice prevails and they constantly thwart those who plot against the realm.

All ten stories and the novel have now been republished in an omnibus edition by Baen Books. It is a pleasure to welcome them back into print (they have been unavailable for far too long). If you’ve never read any of the Lord Darcy stories, you have a treat in store.

Adventures in the Dream Trade is a collection of Neil Gaiman ephemera. It contains introductions that he has written for other people’s books, some poems and songs, some very short (and not very good) fiction, and an extensive diary that Neil kept about a promotional tour for his novel American Gods. It is all very forgettable.

I quickly discovered that ordering a meal from the hotel restaurant or a drink from the hotel bar was an exercise in applied bureaucracy which involved much scribbling on pre-printed forms of monumental complexity.

The order is taken and solemnly written down. The exact date and time of the order is recorded to the minute in triplicate on a form with interleaved carbons.

"What is your room number, sir?"

"I’ll pay cash."

A look of panic – I’ve just broken the system. "I must have your room number, sir."

"Room 40".

This is recorded with great precision (probably to four decimal places, judging by the amount of time it takes to write the number down) and then the word "cash" is circled. The order is ferried off to the kitchen or the bar (whichever is the most appropriate) and sooner or later – generally later – the order arrives at my table. After I have eaten and/or drunk and it is time to pay, the fun starts again.

The first problem is finding my bill. There is much panic as all the myriad pieces of paper surrounding the till are examined minutely one by one; some of them are examined two or three times. None of them are mine. There follows much head scratching and discussion and all the pieces of paper are examined again. Triumph! One of them, generally the last one, proves to be mine. Obviously someone had sneaked it into the pile when none of us were looking. A calculator is produced, the total is checked twice and then written down. Again, the exact date and time is recorded (to the minute, naturally). I hand over some money and another panic ensues as it is discovered that the till is empty. Everyone rushes around madly and empties their pockets of loose change. They hunt frantically in drawers and cupboards, looking for the till float. Eventually it is found in the cutlery drawer. I am given my change together with the yellow bottom copy of the form complete with smudgy carbon hieroglyphs. I throw it away. The other two copies are carefully filed and presumably will later have their details transcribed into permanent ledgers, probably leather bound. In five hundred years time, long after I am dead, archivists of the future will experience indescribable intellectual thrills when they learn that I ordered a continental breakfast at 6:47am on July 16th 2002 and then paid $14.00 for it at 7:18am on the same day.

At one time, the name of Judith Merril was a bright and shining star in the science fiction firmament. She was a hugely influential anthologist. Beginning in 1962 she started editing an annual series of what she considered to be the world’s best SF. As the years progressed her selections became increasingly idiosyncratic and the stories increasingly peculiar. I found them fascinating and made a point of seeking them out, not always successfully. (If any of you have numbers 3,4,6,7,and 9 I’d love to buy them from you).

In 1968, following a visit to England, she produced England Swings SF, the anthology which introduced "…the new wave in science fiction…". It can be argued that this anthology single-handedly blazed the trail that led to Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies and reinforced Moorcock’s own experiments with New Worlds magazine. Certainly that collection (despite its silly title) was a defining moment in the history of SF and I remember reading it with jaw-dropping amazement when it first appeared. I didn’t know it was possible to write like that. I was 18 and it was an epiphany.

Better To Have Loved is not quite a biography of Judith Merril that has been put together by Merril’s granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary. It contains some fragments of biography that Judith Merril herself wrote, a lot of letters to and from various SF luminaries and a sketchy outline of the highlights of Merril’s SF life that Emily has cobbled together from interviews, and tape recordings of her own conversations with Judith. And there are lots of photographs. It’s a rather unsatisfying book. Judith Merril was hugely idiosyncratic, very politically motivated and very closely involved with many of the famous names in modern SF. She also had a big influence on the development of the genre (although her efforts are largely forgotten today) and I would have liked to have learned more about all these aspects of her life. As it is, the portrait that is drawn seems thin and sketchy. I felt that it left her out of focus and failed to define her properly.

James Tiptree Junior was a one of the great SF writers. His stories won award after award. Eventually it was revealed that Tiptree was actually the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon. Even though the secret was out, she continued to write SF under the pen name that she had made famous. She was so influential that the Tiptree awards for SF that explores and expands gender roles were named for her (since that was a primary concern of the stories that she herself wrote).

Meet Me At Infinity is a collection of some of Tiptree’s previously unpublished stories. But much more importantly, it also contains many autobiographical snippets, letters, and travel articles. During her lifetime she remained a mysterious person. Even though her pseudonym was known, little emerged about her background. Her death was equally mysterious. In 1987, when her husband became gravely ill, she shot him and then killed herself.

Perhaps there will never be a complete biography of Alice Sheldon – she was too private and too mysterious for that. The bits and pieces that make up the bulk of this book are perhaps the closest we will ever get to understanding the contradictions that motivated her. She had a wonderful sense of humour, an ability to laugh at the absurdities of herself and of the world. She had a degree in psychology (and obtaining that was a huge struggle for she did it late in life). She also worked for the CIA and her life as a spook gave her arcane skills and a curious world view. All these things obviously influenced her fiction and it is instructive to read her musings about the process of actually creating some of her stories (and her opinions of them afterwards).

I was in Fiji to run a training course for Air Pacific. Every day I walked from my hotel to the airport where the training was to take place. It was about a ten minute stroll, but since the sun pounded down even in the early morning it was always an enormous relief to arrive in the air conditioned office.

Every morning I said, "Bula!" to the office staff and every morning they said, "Bula!" back to me.

The course attendees were all working on Fiji time and therefore I knew that the training would always start at least half an hour late. I used the extra time to check my email. However even the electrons in the wires were working on Fiji time. They all took a rest in the resistors and hung around the capacitors drinking kava with their friends and swapping lies. My internet connection was very s-l-o-w.

On Thursday I learned that there was an industrial dispute simmering. By that evening, tempers were rising. As I left, the manager said, "They’re probably going to go on strike. Your flight home might be cancelled."

On Friday morning I said, "Bula!" to faces I didn’t recognise. Everyone was on strike and the office was manned by an emergency skeleton staff of non-union members.

"Bula!" they said cheerfully back to me.

The manager told me that Air Pacific was desperately trying to hire planes from Qantas and Air New Zealand to handle their stranded passengers. "So you should be able to get home," he said. "But it might be a good idea to ring the flight people and confirm it."

All day as I ran my course I was conscious of a meeting going on in a room across the corridor. A government minister was meeting the strike leaders to discuss the situation. Quite apart from the economic consequences of the strike, the government was finding it politically embarrassing as well for they were hosting an international conference. The ACP (the initials stand for African, Caribbean and Pacific) is a loose UN-like confederation of nations. The delegates to the Fiji conference included many presidents and prime ministers. A strike of the national airline would not only leave the delegates stranded, it would leave the Fiji government with a lot of egg on its collective face; a situation they were anxious to avoid. Hence the minister, the meeting and the tired faces, for all involved had been talking throughout most of the night.

That evening I walked back to the hotel and rang the Air Pacific reservations office.

"I’d like advice on what to do about my flight on Sunday, in view of the strike."

"Strike?" said the Air Pacific Lady. "What strike? Nobody’s told me about any strike."

Since I’d just left the almost deserted office where the ministerial meeting was still in progress, I was dubious about the accuracy of her information.

I turned on the television to see the news. The very first story was about the strike. I went down to the hotel desk to see if they had any information. They had a fax from Air Pacific. All Friday’s flights were cancelled and the passengers had been re-booked on Air New Zealand and Qantas flights that had been diverted from their normal routes to make an unscheduled stop to pick up the extra people.

For nineteen years, Gardner Dozois has been editing an anthology of stories that he considers to be the year’s best science fiction. Obviously he must be doing something right for the series shows no signs of disappearing and has come to be regarded as authoritative. Famous names rub shoulders with unknowns; Dozois doesn’t play favourites. Merit is his only criterion. What more is there to say? Number nineteen is out. Go and buy it.

Brenden DuBois has written a moderately enthralling near-future thriller called 6 Days. Two hikers take shelter from the rain in a building buried deep in the wilderness of America’s back country. It has bullet-proof checkpoints, telephone hotlines, and a map with internment centres marked upon it. There are surveillance cameras and the cameras are live – someone is watching them. To cut a long story short, it quickly becomes clear that they have stumbled on a conspiracy to subvert the government and take over the country (ironically the conspiracy comes from a secret agency within the very government that it is conspiring to overthrow). The bulk of the novel concerns their efforts to escape from the conspirators (who naturally want to kill them in order to keep them from spilling the beans). Along the way we are also treated to the details of the conspiracy and we are introduced to the major players in it – nasty people one and all.

However it remains only moderately enthralling. I simply couldn’t get involved in it. The book is just a little too black and white for my taste and because it lacks shades of grey it also lacks any great depth of thought. It is peopled by caricatures acting out clichés and I found it hard to care about the cardboard issues that it raised.

Alan Dean Foster is best known for writing light SF and fantasy. But every so often he turns his hand to other things and Primal Shadows is a truly gripping novel set in present day Papua New Guinea. The plot is a little threadbare. Steven Bohannon has his wallet stolen by a prostitute in Port Moresby. For obscure reasons, he decides to pursue her as a matter of honour. However the trail leads further and further into the interior of PNG to areas where head-hunters still roam and law and order are merely matters of strong opinion.

However the plot is largely an irrelevance. What gives the book its strength is the absolutely brilliant evocation of PNG itself; its geography, its people, its politics and its passions. PNG really is one of the oddest countries on earth. The flora and fauna are stranger by far than anything Foster has dreamed up in his science fictions. And the violent customs of a small country divided by many hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages and customs are literally unbelievable. It’s as wild and as wonderful as anything dredged from the imagination; but it’s real (in a manner of speaking) and that gives the narrative a frisson that it otherwise might not have had. The country as hero – it’s an odd literary conceit that is brilliantly handled. This is a truly wonderful and fascinating book.

The next day being Saturday, I played tourist and went for an island cruise on the Seaspray, an 83 foot long two-masted sailing ship built in 1928 in Scotland. Her paint was flaking a little, but she was basically sound and very pretty indeed. The crew welcomed us on board.

"The bar will stay open all day. We have wine, champagne and Fiji beer. Help yourself whenever you like. Don’t worry about the ship sinking. You’ll all be fine – remember, the more you drink, the better you float!"

As we sailed out to the islands, the crew played guitar and sang to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda":

                Once a jolly Fiji man
                Sat by the kava bowl…

We spent most of the day on Mordriki island where Tom Hanks filmed Castaway. It’s a small, uninhabited island in the middle of nowhere. All you can hear is the gentle sound of the shining blue sea. The sun bounces off each wavelet and they shimmer and sparkle like liquid diamonds as they hiss gently towards the shore. I sat on a rock and read a book. It was indescribably peaceful, indescribably beautiful. The Seaspray lay at anchor in the bay, sails furled. The beach was golden, the palm trees were full of coconuts.

When we got back on board the ship, one of the crew said: "The bar is open! You’ve come back from Mordriki Island. If you can’t remember the name, just think ‘More Drinking!!’ It’s easy!"

Barbara Vine’s novel The Blood Doctor is told in the first person by Martin Nanther, a peer of the realm. Much of the novel is set in the present day and one of Lord Nanther’s less pleasant tasks is reporting upon the dissolution of the House of Lords. However a far more pressing concern is his investigation into the life and times of his ancestor, the first Lord Nanther who was a physician to Queen Victoria. He specialised in diseases of the blood, particularly haemophilia, a disease to which the royal line was particularly susceptible. Martin is engaged in writing a biography of his famous ancestor, but the more deeply he investigates, the more mysteries and anomalies he finds in the details of the first Lord’s life. He also comes to realise that his great-grandfather died a broken and miserable man. There was terrible tragedy and sorrow in his family and it starts to appear that some of it may have been deliberately caused. He eventually establishes the details of these tragedies (I have to be vague; I don’t want to spoil the story) but the reasons behind them remain obscure until the end of the book. Once they are revealed, it alters our perception of the man completely.

I have to confess that I soon became utterly bewildered by the genealogical complexities of the narrative. I’ve noticed this before in Barbara Vine’s novels. A plethora of characters appear and disappear and their relationships are hugely confusing. However I never lost sight of the main plot thread and that was quite fascinating. The gradual character analysis, and the contemporary history, were enthralling and the denouement, while a little bit anti-climactic (I think I was expecting greater revelations) was nevertheless eminently satisfying.

Depending how you count them, Harry Turtledove’s new novel The Center Cannot Hold is either the second volume of a trilogy or the sixth volume of an ongoing series. Either way, you will have absolutely no interest in reading it if you haven’t read its precursors. It continues to document the social and political history of an alternate America in the aftermath of an alternate first world war. Characters that we have come to know from the five earlier books strut and fret their hour upon the stage of this latest book. Some of them die, some of them don’t. And all the time intensely interesting historical parallels are drawn between the society that Turtledove dramatises and the real social and political upheavals that our world lived through during those self same years. Some of the characters are "real" people from our world, some are only analogues (a large part of this novel concerns the rise to power of a Hitler analogue following the humiliating defeat of the Southern States and the years of high inflation and social and political chaos).

It occurred to me, as I read this book, that Turtledove is actually following in some very illustrious footsteps. The British writer Henry Williamson (he of Tarka the Otter fame) wrote a series of novels collectively called A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight that examined the social and political history of England from the end of the nineteenth century until the early 1950s. Not uncoincidentally, this period also spanned Williamson’s life and the novel sequence is heavily autobiographical. Tutledove’s books are passing through exactly the same years and detailing exactly the same things (albeit at one remove through an Sfnal disguise). Turtledove has a more omniscient viewpoint since he has a huge cast of viewpoint characters whereas Williamson restricted himself to the viewpoint of Phillip Maddison, his alter-ego in the novels. Nevertheless the parallels between the two series are enormous.

I’ve always felt that the multi-tiered, multi-volumed social and political history novel was a very British phenomenon. Williamson; Galsworthy, of course; perhaps Anthony Powell (though I am arguing from weakness here, not having read Powell). I’m hard pressed to find American equivalents other than (perhaps) Dos Passos – but his novels were very slim and these days tend to be published in a single omnibus volume.

Turtledove is working in a grand old tradition and he is doing it magnificently. The six volumes that currently make up this series are brilliant works of art and I strongly urge you to dig in to them. I’m sure you won’t regret it.

I arrived back at my hotel quite late in the evening. I rang Air Pacific, but nobody answered the phone. Presumably they were on strike. I went and asked at the hotel desk. The lady behind the counter showed me the fax they had received from Air Pacific the previous day.

"No, I said. This fax give details of yesterday’s flights. My flight is tomorrow."

She rang a secret number and talked for about five minutes.

"Check in at 5.00am," she said. "Your flight will take off as scheduled at 7.00am."

I was astounded, and I didn’t believe a word of it. However, having no choice in the matter, I reported to the airport next morning at the ungodly hour of 5.00am. To my astonishment, the check in desk was open. A large notice said:

                Electronic or electrical devices can be used to conceal bombs.
                If you are carrying electronic or electrical devices in your luggage
                you must declare them at the check in counter. If you do not declare them
                and they are found in a spot check the airline may refuse to carry your

I presented my passport and ticket to the lady behind the check in counter.

"I’ve got a hair dryer, a beard trimmer, a Palm Pilot and a mobile phone," I said.

She was dubious.

"And an electric toothbrush," I added.

"I think they might be all right," she said. "Don’t use your mobile phone during the flight."

"Of course not," I said, shocked. The very idea!

She looked as if she didn’t believe me. She checked me in and gave me my luggage receipt. I put my hand baggage through the X-Ray machine and went through the metal detector. It was turned up to an insanely high level of sensitivity and it screamed like a banshee when I walked through. I was descended upon by a beefy guard who waved his wand over me. It beeped warningly on my watch, my rings, my belt buckle, the zipper in my trousers, the gold chain around my neck and my medic-alert bracelet, none of which have ever given me a moment’s trouble at any other airport. He scrutinised all of them (except for the zipper in my trousers, of course) and then reluctantly waved me through.

I picked up my bag, but before I could walk off with it, another security person demanded to see inside it. She emptied the bag out and then picked each item up one by one and examined it suspiciously. My can of insect repellent was scrutinised closely. She took the top off and tried a practice squirt to make sure that it wasn’t a bomb. My pen was dismantled completely in case it had a bomb inside. She scribbled with it on a piece of scrap paper to prove that it would write. She examined every key on my key ring and turned on both my mobile phone and my Palm Pilot to see if they would explode. She seemed vaguely disappointed when they didn’t. She flipped through the pages in my book in case I had a bomb cunningly concealed in its hollowed out pages. She jammed everything back into my bag and rather bad temperedly let me go.

I consoled myself by spending lots of money in the duty free shop.

That was Fiji this time.


Chris Ryan   The Watchman   Arrow
Kyril Bonfiglioli   The Mortdecai Trilogy   Penguin
Margaret Bonfiglioli   The Mortdecai ABC   Penguin
Malcolm Pryce   Aberystwyth Mon Amour   Bloomsbury
Ian Pears   The Dream of Scipio    JonathanCape
Randall Garrett   Lord Darcy   Baen Books
Neil Gaiman   Adventures in the Dream Trade   NESFA Press
Judith Merril and
Emily Pohl-Weary  
Better To Have Loved   Between The Lines
James Tiptree Junior   Meet Me At Infinity   Orb
Gardner Dozois   The Year’s Best SF 19   St. Martins
Brenden Dubois   6 Days   Time Warner
Alan Dean Foster   Primal Shadows   Tor
Barbara Vine   The Blood Doctor   Penguin
Harry Turtledove   The Center Cannot Hold   Del Rey

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