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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (oculatus superbus)

Alan And His Things

When I was a little boy I had a teddy bear. I don't recall that he had a name; or perhaps he was just "Teddy". But he had golden fur and when you pressed his tummy he squeaked. He was just a wonderful teddy bear, and I was heartbroken when one day one of his glass eyes cracked all the way across and fell out. But all was not lost. My father raced to the rescue with glue and sympathy, and the eye was quickly cured. I was happy again, and so was Teddy.

I still have him. The fur is faded now and he lost the ability to squeak many years ago. The crack across his eye where my father glued it back together is still clearly visible. He's nowhere near as handsome as once he was, but he still sits proudly on the shelf, just as he has done for nearly fifty years.

Shortly before I left England to come and live in New Zealand, there was a very popular advert for toilet paper on the television. The toilet paper was called Andrex and the advert starred the Andrex Puppy, a cute little dog that wrapped toilet paper round itself and ran all over the house trailing toilet paper behind itself and tying the paper in knots around the furniture and fittings. For unknown reasons, its owners didn't murder it on the spot. Instead they cooed adoringly and bought more toilet paper. My cousin Carole bought me an Andrex Puppy cuddly toy as a leaving present (I'm unclear as to her motives) and I carried it with me all the way to New Zealand. Twenty two years later, I still have it. I've used a lot of toilet paper in those twenty two years and the puppy has shown no interest in it whatsoever. So much for truth in advertising!


John Varley's new novel Red Thunder is the best Heinlein juvenile I've ever read that wasn't written by Robert Heinlein. It's Rocketship Galileo as it should have been but never was. Two bright young teenagers meet an ex-astronaut who has a mad scientist genius cousin. The genius cousin discovers a hitherto unsuspected physical force (which appears, among other things, to be a perpetuum mobile - there is much arm waving and heavy double talk about this!). They all build a spaceship and race off to Mars in order: (a) to make sure that they land before the Chinese (who are already on their way), thus guaranteeing that Americans (much flag waving here) are first on the planet and (b) to rescue the American expedition which is also already on the way but is lagging far behind the Chinese and is in some considerable danger.

The book is stuffed to the gills with Heinlein references. The genius cousin is called Jubal; the narrator (one of the teenage boys) is called Manny - it's obvious that Varley knew exactly what he was doing; and he succeeded magnificently. The only bad thing about the book is the unbelievably sickening, gung ho, super-patriotic, mom-and-apple-pie hero worship of the American Way Of Life. But if you can control your urge to vomit over the pages, you will indeed find a superb classical SF story in this novel.

In the early 1950s Tom Godwin wrote a story called The Cold Equations which was immediately controversial and which secured his reputation for all time. Even now, fifty years after it was first published, it still turns up in anthologies and it still excites enormous controversy. A space ship is flying urgently needed drugs to an isolated colony which is suffering from an outbreak of plague. The pilot discovers a woman who has stowed away on  his ship. Her presence means that he cannot reach his destination - she will consume too much air, too much food; her weight means that the ship will use too much fuel. The plague sufferers will all die. The cold mathematical equations admit of no other solution. She will have to be jettisoned into space to die alone while the ship continues on to deliver the sorely needed drugs.

It is one of the most powerful stories I've ever read and even now, re-reading it gives me the shivers. I don't really like to re-read it; it's just too uncomfortable.

Over the years, I often wondered if Tom Godwin had written anything else. I never seemed to come across any other stories at all. Now Baen Books has published The Cold Equations and Other Stories and I've found out why. Godwin was not very prolific - he has barely a dozen stories to his credit. And with the exception of The Cold Equations, the stories are utterly unmemorable. It seems that Godwin really was a one shot wonder.

The collection opens with a short novel called The Survivors which is a rather run of the mill adventure about a space ship full of colonists who are marooned on a hostile world by some marauding aliens who take over their space ship. Over many generation they slowly come to terms with their hostile environment and then use a neat trick to get their revenge on the aliens who originally marooned them. It's mildly entertaining, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The remaining stories in the book are very poor indeed. Godwin sets up some artificial situation, provides an artificial solution to it and that's the end. One story stands out as particularly bad - in Mother of Invention an exploration team lands on a new planet. Their space ship is disabled in an accident and they are marooned. Then they discover that they have only six months to find a solution to their problem because in six months time the planet's erratic orbit will bring it close to two suns that are about to collide. The fury of that cataclysmic event will completely destroy the planet.  (See what I mean about artificial situations? Talk about Pelion piled upon Ossa!)

There's only one thing for it - nobody has ever really understood how field forces such as electromagnetism and gravitation work (says one of the characters) and the field force that powers their hyperdrive engine is even more poorly understood. The hyperdrive engines are really only crude engineering; and they are highly inefficient. All the characters have to do (in less than six months) is find a grand unifying theory that will enable them properly to understand field forces, and then utilise that understanding to build a more efficient hyperdrive unit from scratch and thus escape the coming catastrophe. Oh - and did I mention that they have no electrical power and no tools? Naturally their plan succeeds. (See what I mean about artificial solutions?)

None of the other stories in the collection are any better. Tom Godwin is a deservedly obscure author and is doomed to stay that way forever.

The Wreck of the River of Stars is Michael Flynn's new novel. The mid-21st century was a gloriously romantic time. The great sailing ships explored the solar system, pushing ever onward under huge spreads of magnetic sails as the solar wind carried them to their destinations. And the greatest of the sailing ships was the River of Stars. She was a luxury liner and the rich and famous travelled and partied in her from Mercury to Pluto and back again. They were great days and the space sailors were heroes, and none were more heroic than the crew of the River of Stars.

However the invention of the Farnsworth fusion drive doomed the sailing ships and they began to disappear from the spaceways. Even the great River of Stars was retrofitted with Farnsworth drives and her status declined. As the novel opens, she is just a tramp merchant vessel hauling whatever cargo she can find to whatever solar system ports will take her. Her staterooms have been turned into cargo holds, her systems are slowly disintegrating. The few of her original crew who remain are embittered and cynical.

When an accident disables the Farnsworth engines, the chief engineer is convinced that he can repair them. But the crew have no faith in him and between themselves they plot to bring the ship safely to Jupiter under sail in one last gasp of glory.

It's a very long novel and ultimately a rather dull one. The same kind of situations happened in our own (historical) past when the great sailing ships slowly gave way to the steam ships that supplanted them. The same bitterness was expressed, the same romance seemed to fade from the world. Flynn has no new insights in the parallels that he draws.

He concentrates on the bickerings between the crew and in all honesty the crew are not very interesting people. The soap opera of their lives on board ship is often less than enthralling. And Flynn scarcely makes any use at all of the solar system. Indeed, you could re-publish the entire novel as a historical romance set during the transition from sail to steam and you'd barely have to change a word; perhaps substitute (say) "Sydney" for "Jupiter", and "steam engine" for "fusion drive" - the changes really would be all at that level and utterly trivial. It isn't a science fiction novel at all, it's only pretending to be. And it isn't very interesting either, it's only pretending to be.


I collect coins. The habit has become so obsessive that I no longer buy things that I really need, or things of particular quality or style. No - I buy things in order to maximise the amount of change that I am given. Then I bring the coins home and pour them into containers. One container for silver, one container for gold (well - brass, anyway). When the mood takes me, I do my world famous Scrooge McDuck impressions and I dive deeply into my vast wealth of coinage and swim to and fro, chuckling and giggling the while, and throwing my riches into the air in delight (always making sure to catch them cleanly again on the way down, for I am, of course, a Yorkshireman and where there's brass there's muck. Hmmmm! That doesn't sound quite right...).

Periodically I take the excessively large number of coins that I have amassed to the bank, and a long suffering cashier counts (or weighs) them carefully, confirms the amount that I have scribbled on the paying in slip, and credits them to my account. Then I start all over again.

It is amazing how heavy even a small bowl full of coins can be. And when you are as anally retentive as I am you need to take periodic muscle building courses in order to build up the stamina necessary to lug the whole lot down to the bank.

I have a cushion shaped like a Buck Rogers rocket and painted in garish primary colours. It is an ideal accessory for a science fiction fan. In my dreams I cuddle my spaceship cushion and fight hordes of marauding Martians (I am always victorious of course). I have been observed to throw the cushion around the room and yell "Warp factor five! Vroom! Vroom!" and I am not ashamed.

Vroom! Vroom!


I've met Sean McMullen at several conventions and always liked him as a person - but until I read Souls In The Great Machine I never thought much of him as a writer. A few trivial short stories, a rather unsatisfying novel about a Roman legionary - McMullen just seemed to be noodling around. But Souls In The Great Machine is superb and after I read it, I immediately went out and ordered its two sequels from HugeSouthAmericanRiver (as Dave Langford phrases it). I await their arrival with great eagerness.

Two thousand years from now the nuclear war that caused a great winter to descend upon the world is merely a folk legend. But traces of the old world still remain. An automated factory on the moon continues its mysterious manufacturing and orbital forts monitor the earth and destroy any traces that they find of higher technology. Speeding vehicles, electrical signals, all are ruthlessly destroyed. On the Australican (sic) continent wind engines are leading edge technology and all social and political power is concentrated in the librarians who are the guardians of what little knowledge remains in the world. A duelling code enforces a rigid stratification of society and also provides a pathway to power. Zarvora is the chief librarian - she has fought her way to the top motivated not by power as an end in itself but by power as a means to bring about a social and a technical revolution. Zarvora is a (very pragmatic) idealist who believes that she can fight the orbital forts and bring a new renaissance to the world.

She designs a calculor - a computer (to use an old fashioned term) which is powered by teams of people, each of whom performs a small part of the great calculations. The sum of the machine is greater than the whole of its parts and the calculor gives Zarvora  the technical edge that she needs to control her society. McMullen's descriptions of the working of the calculor are positively inspired. (Richard Feynman set up a similar operation in order to streamline the calculations that were necessary for the construction of the atomic bombs that ended World War II, and he describes it in his memoirs - but McMullen implements it on a much larger scale and with much greater ingenuity). The components of the calculor (the people who power it) are, of course, the eponymous souls in the great machine.

Zarvora has many problems to face. At periodic intervals a mysterious Call sweeps across the land and people (and higher animals) in its path fall into a hypnotic trance and simply wander away to die in its thrall. Although there are techniques for protecting oneself from the Call (given sufficient warning, a simple tether will suffice), the Call itself adds another layer of complication to the task Zarvora has set herself. And when she discovers that there seem to be organised groups who can resist the Call (and whose aims are opposed to her own) its investigation becomes a matter of high priority.

McMullen's imagined society rings true and the enormous cast of characters are all beautifully imagined and dance alive off the pages as they weave in and out of the complex plot. The novel is a brilliant tour de force and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Gryphon's Skull is another historical novel by the thinly pseudonymous H. N. Turtletaub. It is a sequel to his earlier Over the Wine-Dark Sea and involves many of the same characters. It is fourteen years since the death of Alexander the Great and his generals are squabbling over the division of his empire. Menedemos and Sostratos are cousins, traders out of the politically neutral principality of Rhodes. They tour the islands of the Aegean, buying and selling as they go, hoping to turn a profit from the season. In the market place on one of the islands they purchase the fossilised skull of what Sostratos believes to have been a gryphon (dinosaurs were unknown to the ancient Greeks). Sostratos wants to take the skull to Athens, the intellectual centre of the world. He is sure the scholars there can learn much from it. But the Aegean is in turmoil. Two of Alexander's generals are at war. As neutrals, Menedemos and Sostratos cannot be seen to favour either side and during the course of the novel they are pressed into service by both sides (and the services they provide are valuable indeed). Their journey to Athens keeps being delayed.

By any standards this is a superb novel. It exhibits a vast knowledge of ancient Greece - of its politics and its day to day concerns. The whole era comes stunningly to life. But the book isn't just a vehicle for Turtletaub to show off his erudition. It also tells a rattling good yarn. I loved it.

Howard Waldrop is an odd writer who writes odd stories. Custer's Last Jump is a collection of Waldrop's collaborative stories with several other writers and many of them are odd even by Waldrop's standards. Probably only One Horse Town with Leigh Kennedy will have any real staying power. This is a very moving story which flies back and forth in time from a modern archaeological dig, to the sack of Troy, to early incidents in the life of the poet Homer and to the last day in the life of a Trojan warrior. It is superb. The other stories are mostly fluff (though oddly entertaining fluff). The book is enlivened by utterly scurrilous introductions to each story wherein Waldrop insults his collaborators and afterwords wherein each collaborator insults Waldrop. It's all good, dirty fun.

Like me, Charles Platt grew up reading 1950s science fiction with its promises of immortality; a lifetime for the stars. Like me he found it the ultimate buzz; mind expanding, mind enriching, a lifestyle, an obsession. Unlike me he joined in, and in the 1960s he and Michael Moorcock between them transformed the face of science fiction as they edited the magazine New Worlds and introduced the phrase "new wave" to the masses. The essays in Loose Canon look back on a lifetime in SF and discuss, quite candidly, Platt's own effect on the field. He isn't always proud of what he did. The excesses of the new wave can now be put into perspective. It was neither as revolutionary as it pretended to be nor as influential. And sometimes its voice was overly shrill. The new wave did encourage a lot of wonderful writers into print, some of whom went on to bigger and better things (J. G. Ballard, for example). But some of them vanished without trace when New Worlds ceased publication (David I. Masson for instance).

Loose Canon is largely autobiographical and it chronicles a journey from optimism to cynicism and back again. Perhaps, argues Platt, the hard core of 1950s SF writers were correct in their vision of the future. Perhaps the angry young men who supplanted them were wrong. Perhaps...


I have an open plan stereo system. The components sit elegantly on shelves near the top of the display units. The middle tier consists of a row of CDs and the lower level is stuffed full of LPs (remember them?). Wires dangle seductively down the back and coil attractively on the floor. Porgy and Bess, the kittens, like nothing better in life than to climb behind the stereo units and chew on the wires. I am less than enthusiastic about their hobby and I am trying hard to persuade them to look elsewhere for their fun.

To begin with, all I did was push some of the LPs in the bottom row so far back into the unit that they reached right up against the wall, thereby preventing the kittens from clambering behind the records to get at the wires. But the kittens quickly discovered that the records were not very tightly packed and could easily be pushed to one side as they forced their way to the wires through the stack of LPs. So I jammed the Andrex Puppy between a couple of LPs, thereby crushing the records closer together and (hopefully) preventing the kittens from clambering through. The first time Porgy and Bess saw the angry face of the Andrex Puppy glaring out at them from amidst the records, they did a classic cinematic double take and ran away screaming. Problem solved!

I should have known better.

It wasn't long before the kittens discovered that they could jump up onto the second tier and run along behind the CDs and then jump down to where the wires were. I plonked my containers of coins into the gap they were using. The shelves bowed a little under the excessive weight. There was no way the kittens would ever grow strong enough to move that lot! Problem solved!

I should have known better.

One shelf on the third tier consisted largely of empty space. There were just a few ornaments sitting there  looking decorative. Soon the kittens were making prodigious leaps to the third level, scattering ornaments far and wide across the room as they succumbed to the siren song of the stereo cables. I jammed the spaceship cushion into the shelf thereby obscuring the ornaments from view, but preventing the cats from using their new tunnel to paradise. Problem solved!

I should have known better.

Just to the left of the shelf with the ornaments is the shelf that holds my cassette player. There is a small gap between the top of the cassette player and the bottom of the shelf on the next layer up. It really is a tiny gap, far too small for a kitten - particularly given the fact that both Porgy and Bess appear to be doubling in size every single day as they convert their protein packed diet into fur and flesh. So you can imagine my astonishment (and rage) when I observed both of them leap up there one day, dematerialise themselves through the tiny gap, and start chewing blissfully on the cables again. There was only one thing for it - I jammed my teddy bear into the tiny gap. He barely fits and he looks a bit distorted as he crouches uneasily in the small space. I think he might be having trouble breathing. But never mind - problem solved!

For now...


Bound by Toya is the third volume of essays in which she explores what it means to live as a submissive in a D/s relationship. I never really understood the BDSM lifestyle until I read Toya's books. She has a genuine talent for explaining things that are hard to understand (and making them sound quite attractive at times). She illustrates her thesis by telling little anecdotes about everyday occurrences in her life and then drawing lifestyle conclusions from them. Her genius lies in the way she constructs her essays around this framework. Her stories are always interesting and witty and often genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and they make a wonderful sugar-coated pill for the philosophy that follows. Her love for her Master shines like a sun from every page. Reading it makes me feel good - it is great to know that someone can be as happy as Toya so obviously is. This is a warm, witty and wonderful book.

Sarah Waters has a reputation as a writer of lesbian fiction and as such she has been often been relegated to the ghetto of obscure shelving in the few bookshops who stocked her work. And that is a shame, for while her novels undoubtedly do concern lesbian relationships and do contain (sometimes quite graphic) scenes of lesbian love, their primary focus is on the sociology of Victorian England (which sounds very dull, but isn't) and also on telling a damn good story that will hold you on to the edge of your seat with tension. What more could any writer hope to achieve?

There are signs that she is starting to make her mark as a mainstream novelist. Her new novel Fingersmith is getting a prominent display in the major bookshops and has been shortlisted for the Booker prize (it won't win - it's far too good a novel ever to win the Booker; only tediously tendentious novels ever win the Booker). And the BBC have made an enthralling drama from her early novel Tipping the Velvet. This might be the year that Sarah Waters makes it big. I certainly hope so.

Fingersmith opens in London in the year 1862. Sue Trinder was orphaned at birth but has been brought up by Mrs Sucksby, a baby farmer. Her husband is a Fagin-like figure who acts as a fence for the local criminal community and who also runs some of Mrs Sucksby's children as pickpockets and the like (a pickpocket is a fingersmith, in the jargon of the time). While Sue certainly picks up the tricks of the trade, Mrs Sucksby never allows her to become fully part of her husband's criminal activities.

In her late teens, Sue becomes involved in a scheme hatched by one of Mrs Sucksby's gentlemen friends. He has set his eye on a rich heiress. He determines to marry her and then have her declared insane. After she is committed to an asylum he (and hopefully Sue) will be set up for life. Sue is to play the part of her maid and help with the initial seduction and wedding. For this, she will be paid three thousand pounds.

The first part of the novel details the slow unwinding of this dastardly scheme. It ends with a most magnificent and unexpected double cross that fair took my breath away!

The second part re-tells the same events from the point of view of the heiress. Motives that were obscure are now revealed and the double cross is shown to be both less and more than we first considered it to be. It becomes apparent that there are wheels within wheels.

In the third and last part of the book we are back with Sue again as she starts to unravel the complications that surround her. Nothing is what it appears to be and as the veils fall away and reasons and relationships are finally revealed in their true colours, we can only gasp at the sheer authorial skill that not only successfully concealed all this from the reader, but actually managed to conceive of it, in all of its monumental complexity, in the first place! Sometimes it seems as if there are an infinite number of rabbits to be pulled out of the hat (all of them prefigured - Sarah Waters is far too good a writer to fall into the deus ex machina trap). The surprises just keep coming.

As well as telling a fascinatingly complex story, Sarah Waters has also brought nineteenth century London brilliantly alive. Not since Dickens has anyone really portrayed so well the sight, the sound and even the smell of the city. She gets so cleverly beneath the skins of her characters, bringing them all magnificently alive, and peppering her book with truly Dickensian eccentrics as well (Mrs Cakebread the cook is an obvious homage). But she also ventures where Dickens never trod and much of the book concerns itself, in both overt and covert detail, with the underground trade in pornography. This is a central, and very important plot thread (though to tell you why would be too much of a spoiler).

Fingersmith is truly wonderful. Please, please read it. Trust me on this one.


A friend came to visit. She expressed surprise at my rather surrealistic looking stereo cabinet, awash with coins, cushions and cuddly toys; the stereo components themselves being barely visible as they peeked coyly around the barricades.  She seemed to be particularly affronted by the rather painful looking posture of the teddy bear.

"He looks very uncomfortable," she said sternly. "Don't you think you are being a little cruel?"

I explained what was going on.

"Oh," she said delightedly, "he's a working Ted."

That seemed to make everything alright.

John Varley Red Thunder Ace
Tom Godwin The Cold Equations & Other Stories Baen
Michael Flynn The Wreck Of The River Of Stars Tor
Sean McMullen Souls in the Great Machine Tor
H. N. Turtletaub The Gryphon's Skull Forge
Howard Waldrop et al Custer's Last Jump Golden Gryphon
Charles Platt Loose Canon Cosmos Books
Toya Bound Whisper Enterprises
Sarah Waters Fingersmith Virago

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