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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (nosmo rex)

Alan and Robin Go Shopping

"What this room needs is a new lounge suite," I said.

"You’ve been saying that for the last nine months," Robin pointed out with delicate tact. "Perhaps it’s time to get your finger out?"

With me, to conceive of an idea is to put it into practice. We drove immediately to Harvey Norman Furniture in Porirua.

The store was huge. The showroom stretched on forever, vanishing into a grey swirling mist at the limits of vision. The lounge suites were arranged in order of price. Just inside the front door they were made of cardboard and string and cost 3/6d, but as we followed them deep into the bowels of the store they gradually became more expensive, more luxurious and considerably less cat proof.

"Can you imagine what Ginger’s claws would do that leather upholstery?" Robin shuddered with horror. "It doesn’t bear thinking about."

The prices seemed to go up by about a thousand dollars per kilometre travelled. By the time we got a thousand kilometres into the store we were well into millionaire territory. The suites were upholstered in phoenix feathers and came with matching pouffs carved from solid rubies. We decided it was time to look elsewhere. Just across the road was a bargain furniture shop. Perhaps they would have a bargain.

Maps by John Sladek is an unalloyed delight from start to finish. Sladek never had an enormous reputation as an SF writer and he never managed to make much of a living from it. Anyone who can write a novel called The Reproductive System which isn't about sex and another novel called The Muller-Fokker Effect which everybody was too embarrassed to ask for by name in the bookshop obviously has a certain handicap to overcome in terms of sales and subsequent popularity. He died in March 2000 at the age of 62 and those of us who treasured his dozen or so books were much saddened by his passing. He had a wry wit and a surreal humour that was all his own. We called it Sladeckian.

Many of his stories were published in ephemeral form (one was in a programme booklet for a West End play!) With great diligence, Dave Langford has managed to track them down one by one and the result is Maps - The Uncollected John Sladek. Langford's introduction to the collection which tells of the travails of his travels among dusty bibliographia is almost as much fun as the stories themselves and the stories are enormous fun indeed. If you loved John Sladek's work (and I know you did), you won't want to miss this one.

Alan Dean Foster is well known as a novelist. He is much less well known as a short story writer and that is a pity. The stories collected in Impossible Things are beautifully crafted gems (Foster is a craftsman par excellence). They run the gamut from high humour to low horror stopping at most places in between. They aren't literature and they won't win any prizes but my goodness me, they are entertaining and sometimes that's just what we all want. There's even a new story about his most enduring and popular characters Flinx and Pip.

I seem to have been reading a lot of short story collections this month. Black Projects, White Knights is a collection of stories by Kage Baker. Many of the stories are about the Company (she has also written four superb novels on the same theme). The Company is an organisation in the far future which has the ability both to travel in time and create immortals. Over the millennia they have recruited many people to be their agents. The agents' job is to rescue things that would otherwise vanish from history. There is no altruism involved in this though - The Company stands to make a fortune from these rescued things. And there are clues that suggest that The Company also has a deeper, darker agenda.

The stories in the collection relate many incidents from the careers of some of the agents we have come to know from the novels. The principal one, to whom Baker returns again and again, is Mendoza who was rescued from the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, recruited into The Company and trained as a botanist. Her task is to preserve plants that would otherwise have vanished from the genetic record, and she spends many centuries in pursuit of this goal. For various reasons, Mendoza is very misanthropic and much of her career passes in splendid isolation in the wilderness of the world. But even there she shows a remarkable propensity for getting herself into trouble.

Intermingled with these stories of The Company are several other stories that do not seem to have any connection with the theme. Mind you - I could be wrong. The history of The Company is not yet complete. Anyway, these tales tell of a young boy growing up in a future England. He is estranged from his parents and his only real companion is a kind of robot nursemaid. They are touching stories and also a little bit weird. There are hints that young Alec is not quite human and his interactions with the world around him are decidedly odd and not all of that can be explained by his unconventional upbringing. As with The Company stories there is a lot here that Baker is not telling us yet. I, for one, am eager to learn more.

"’ello squire," said a greasy man in the bargain furniture shop, "wot can we do you for, eh?"

"We’re looking for a lounge suite."

"Oh, a lounge suite is it? We got lounge suites. Oh yes, do you a very nice line in lounge suites we can. ‘Ow about this one then?"

It was purple and it smirked. Robin sat in it and an expression of deep contentment spread all over her face. I sat down beside her. I felt as if I would go on sinking into the sofa forever. Even when the first kiss of bottom to cushion had taken up most of the softness there was still a small sensation of sinking by increments that just went on and on and on for ever. It was indescribably comfortable, blissfully snug. And purple.

"Do you a good price, squire. Just to get it off the floor. New stock coming in all the time; we got to clear the floor. Special floor price, just for you."

"It’s purple, " I said. "And I don’t like the expression on its face."

"Yes," said Robin whose favourite colour is purple. "Purple."

"I’m not sure purple will go with the lounge that we have."

"It might be a bit dark," she conceded.

"Comfortable though," I said.

Robin got a wistful look. "Purple…"

Arthur Clarke's The Reefs of Taprobane has been out of print for many years and is very difficult to find. Now we have a new edition from Ibooks, but it is a mixed blessing. The book simply tells the tale of Clarke's adventures in the 1950s when he and his partner Mike Wilson spent much time diving in the Indian Ocean. It is beautifully written and endlessly fascinating (Clarke gets positively lyrical when talking about his beloved oceans). We also get a brief glimpse of the areas in Ceylon that, many years later, would form the backdrop of his novel The Fountains of Paradise. An intriguing morsel of Clarkiana.

The book contains all of the original text but infuriatingly only some of the many photographs that Clarke and Wilson took. The few that remain are appallingly badly reproduced in monochromatic gloomyscope. There are many references in the text to pictures that are missing from this edition and that makes the book quite frustrating to read. It is nice to see the book back in print but it is, as I said, a mixed blessing at best.

Ibooks have plans to publish three of Clarke's underwater explorations in a uniform edition as The Blue Planet Trilogy. The first is The Coast of Coral, the second is The Reefs of Taprobane. Both are currently available. The third, The Treasure of the Great Reef is apparently forthcoming, but I have no idea when.

I'm getting a bit annoyed with Phil Rickman. I used to like his skilful blending of the supernatural with the present day and I devoured his early novels eagerly. But a few years ago he introduced the character of Merrily Watkins and he seems to have fallen in love with her for he has now written far too many novels about her and I'm fed up with them because I don't like her at all. She seems to be barely in control of herself. She freezes in panic at all the wrong times. She is headstrong and foolish and extremely irritating. I keep expecting her to twist an ankle at crucial moments (it's about the only mistake she hasn't made yet, but she's come very close). A Crown of Lights is her new misadventure. It's a fairly incoherent mish-mash of paganism, exorcism and charismatic religion (heavily influenced by American bible-belt cults). I quickly lost patience with both the book and Merrily Watkins.

I’m getting a bit fed up with Stephen King as well. His new novel is utter junk. One day something that looks like a Buick 8 turns up from nowhere at a gas station in Pennsylvania. The driver, a curiously deformed man, wanders off while it is being filled with petrol. He never returns. The car is stored in a shed at the local police station. Over the years it occasionally pulses with light. Sometimes things vanish. Sometimes alien things appear as if from nowhere. Some of them are alive. All of them die.

That's the whole of the plot and every major incident. It's a trivial trash-SF short story idea hideously bloated to the length of a novel with a lot of dull exposition and back and forth banter by dumb and boring characters.

Don't touch it with a bargepole - it's a terrible book.

But just to prove that there are good books left in the world, Iain Banks has a new novel and it is an absolute pleasure to read. Dead Air concerns Ken Nott, a disc jockey with a penchant for shock. He has left wing opinions that sit uneasily in a right wing world but as long as the ratings are good he can spew out his views almost unchallenged.

The story begins at a mid-week wedding. Ken is bored and the reception at the high rise apartment quickly palls. Wouldn’t it be fun to throw things off the roof? He starts with fruit but soon the other guests join in and half the contents of the flat end up smashed on the car park below. As they admire the destruction, mobile phones start to ring and the sobering news spreads. Someone, it seems, has flown a couple of planes into the World Trade Centre. Oh my goodness me!

At one level the book is simply a rant about contemporary political and social concerns (and oh my, Iain Banks does a wonderful rant when the mood is on him). On another level it is a love story (oddly enough). It also has a lot to say about organised crime and the mechanics of torture and death. But it is mainly about principles and idealism, even in the middle of crass commercialism and selfish cynicism and that is what gives it its charm.

Banks always has a serious political furrow to plough – he is probably the most overtly political of contemporary authors – but he writes with such enormous wit and gusto that even those who disagree with the positions that he espouses will joyfully come along for the ride.

It’s a laugh out loud funny book and it is probably the most serious thing I’ve read all year. That’s how good it is.

We went back to Harvey Norman Furniture. When we reached the three kilometre mark, where prices were just starting to climb from outrageous to impossible, I heard choirs of angels and golden trumpets, and a celestial spotlight shone on an elegant couch.

"I’m sure that wasn’t there last time we looked."

"No," agreed Robin. "It wasn’t."

The couch was upholstered in glowing golden fabric and there were polished wooden inlays on each side, a perfect match for our polished wooden floors and our polished wooden wall.

"That is just the perfect colour," said Robin.

"Yes dear," I said and meant it.

We sat in the couch. While it lacked the sybaritic comfort of the smirking purple bargain, it was not without its own hedonistic delights. We sank deep into the cushions, rested our arms on the arm rests so thoughtfully provided at just the proper angle and turned to look at each other.

"Let’s buy it!"

There remained only two problems. The floor display of this perfect suite had a three seater settee and two single chairs. We wanted a three seater and a two seater. We needed to confirm that this arrangement was configurable. The second problem was closely related to the first. We needed a Harvey Norman Furniture staff person to confirm this arrangement with, but there was none to be seen. Unlike the bargain furniture place where the greasy man attached himself immovably as soon as you entered the door, Harvey Norman Furniture was discreet, allowing you ample time to make your own mind up. Some might say they were too discreet. The store appeared denuded of staff.

"Perhaps I should just put the suite into my pocket and walk out," I mused. "A three seater and two single chairs isn’t too bad, when all’s said and done."

"It’ll never work," said Robin. "You’ll set off the magnetic alarm when you walk through the door. You are so impractical sometimes, Alan."

Suddenly I spotted a salesman hurrying past.

"Excuse me," I asked, "can you help?"

"Sorry," he said, looking harassed, "this isn’t my department. I’m just taking a shortcut to the electronic goods section. I think it’s about ten thousand kilometres that way." He gestured vaguely at the grey mist that roiled and heaved in the far distance and then plunged courageously into it. Faint screams emerged, and we never saw him again.

Then, just when I thought all hope was lost, the lovely Shari arrived.

Berlin Noir is a collection of three novels by Philip Kerr that take place in Germany in 1936, 1938 and 1947 respectively. Each of them centres around an ex-policeman called Bernie Gunther. He fits uneasily into the pre-war Nazi society (though that does him little good in the post-war world that regards all Germans with a high degree of suspicion). The excesses of Berlin have made him almost unshockable, but even he is taken aback by the lengths to which the party is prepared to go.

On one level these books are Chandleresque police-procedural murder mysteries (and for most of us Berlin is as exotic a location as Los Angeles). Certainly they exhibit the trademark cynicism laced with idealism that is typical of the genre. But they have deeper levels than that for they are also about the reality of fascism and the fight for survival in pre- and post-war Germany. Kerr paints an utterly convincing word picture that captures the times and the concerns of the times perfectly. I felt quite immersed in a very familiar world, which is impossible of course for it is a foreign world of which I have no experience at all. The ability to cast such a convincing spell is what separates the good writer from the bad. Philip Kerr is a very good writer indeed.

The Separation is Christopher Priest’s new novel, and a very disturbing novel it is too. Jack and Joe Sawyer are Olympic athletes. They win a bronze medal in the coxless pairs at the 1936 Olympic Games. Their medals are presented to them by Rudolf Hess. When they return to England, Jack joins the RAF but Joe declares himself to be a pacifist and joins the Red Cross. When war breaks out he works as an ambulance driver in the hell that is the London Blitz.

In 1999, historian Stewart Gratton is researching the mysterious relationship between Winston Churchill and one J. L. Sawyer. Sawyer seems to have had something to do with the peace negotiations that followed Rudolf Hess’ desperate flight to England in 1941. As he pursues this relationship it becomes clear that as far as Gratton and Joe Sawyer are concerned the war ended in 1941 after a negotiated peace settlement engineered by Hess. However the diaries of Jack Sawyer make it clear that Hess was a madman whose efforts to negotiate a peace settlement came to naught. Jack’s war ends in 1945 with Hess a disgraced prisoner in Spandau prison.

Churchill himself is unsure whether or not he is dealing with one J. L. Sawyer or two. Reports suggest that Sawyer is both a pacifist and a serving RAF officer, a contradiction that interests Churchill strangely.

Joe Sawyer is seriously injured by a bomb blast and suffers episodes of lucid hallucinations where two realities seem to co-exist. Rather like Schrodinger’s Cat which is both alive and dead until the lid on the box is lifted, World War II is fought to two different conclusions and it isn’t fair to ask which one is real.

The technique of the unreliable narrator has never been used quite as brilliantly as it is in this book. Reading it gave me the inescapable feeling of straddling a great divide. I could feel the sands of reality shifting beneath me and it was an extraordinarily weird sensation. The only writer who has ever come close to inducing that same feeling is Philip K. Dick (and it is no coincidence that Dick’s themes echo the same concerns that Priest investigates). It is an eerie, extremely unsettling and enthralling book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I have long been a fan of Derek Robinson. For more than thirty years he has been writing an ongoing novel about the war in the air. It all began in 1971 with Goshawk Squadron which was nominated for a Booker Prize. It didn’t win (because it was a very good book). It detailed the exploits of a squadron of fighter pilots in World War I. It was at one and the same time grim and bloody and hilariously funny. Over the years Robinson has returned obsessively to the same theme. Piece of Cake, his novel of the Battle of Britain, was brilliantly filmed by the BBC. Now, in A Damned Good Show, he turns away from the fighter squadrons that he has concentrated on in the past, and tells the tale of Bomber Command in World War II.

Robinson excels at the absurdities of war. During the unsettled period of the phoney war, RAF Bomber Command dropped millions of leaflets on Germany urging the population to rise up against their Nazi oppressors. The text of the leaflets was top secret and none of the aeroplane crews were allowed to read them…

As the war became more intense, the life expectancy of a bomber pilot grew shorter and shorter. Major characters that we have grown fond of die and are replaced. In the midst of high comedy there is always dark tragedy and Robinson’s genius lies in his uncanny ability to balance the two and make you believe in it. As with all his books, this one will make you laugh and weep.

It’s what they call art.

"Can I help you?" asked the lovely Shari.

"Yes please – can we have this one in a three and a two instead of a three and two ones?"

"But of course," she said, obligingly.

She took us over to her computer. "I forgot my glasses this morning," she said, squinting at the screen. "I hope I type it all in correctly." She began to bang the keys. As she typed, she murmured, "Amsterdam 3+2 silksuede, colour jonquil." She looked up and smiled radiantly. "It should be ready in four to six weeks."

"Do you deliver on Saturdays?" I asked.

"Oh yes – in fact I’ll let you into a secret." She leaned close and whispered, "Sometimes we even deliver on Sunday!" She sat back, delighted with herself.

"Perfect!" I said.

"Do you want it scotch guarded?" asked Shari. "It’s got a five year guarantee and it makes the fabric so much easier to look after and it’s only an extra $250."

"Yes," said Robin decisively. "We’ve got two cats who are prone to vomit. Scotch guard is good."

"There’s a $45 delivery fee."


"And GST is $282.78."


"Making a grand total of $3,545."

"That can’t be right." I’d been doing approximations in my head as she spoke. "That’s about $1000 too much."

Shari got flustered. "Oh I wish I hadn’t forgotten my glasses," she cried. "My arithmetic goes all to pot when I don’t wear my glasses because I can’t see my toes."

She tried again, muttering to herself as she typed things into the computer. Then she hauled out a calculator and typed furiously on that as well. She frowned at both machines. Then she took an abacus out of her desk drawer and blew the dust off it. Her fingers flew across the beads. "$2,545," she declared triumphantly and beamed at us. She held the abacus out to me so I could check her figures. I confirmed the calculation with a slide rule and a set of Napier’s Bones.

"It’s a deal!"

We had a new lounge suite.

John Sladek
(Edited by Dave Langford) 
Maps - The UncollectedJohn Sladek  Big Engine
Alan Dean Foster   Impossible Places   Del Rey
Kage Baker Black Projects, White Knights Golden Gryphon
Arthur C. Clarke   The Reefs of Taprobane   Ibooks
Phil Rickman   A Crown of Lights   Macmillan
Stephen King   From a Buick 8   Hodder & Stoughton
Iain Banks   Dead Air   Little, Brown
Philip Kerr   Berlin Noir   Penguin
Christopher Priest   The Separation   Scribner
Derek Robinson   A Damned Good Show   Cassell

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