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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (impedimenta gargantua)


The lady at the Qantas check-in desk was looking a little frazzled. Crowds of bad-tempered commuters seethed and surged around her. There must have been something special happening somewhere in the country. I've never seen the airport so crowded on a Sunday before.

"I'm on the Auckland flight," I told her.

She clicked keys and frowned at the screen for a time. Then she pressed RETURN and her machine disgorged a boarding pass and a luggage tag. AKL it said, in large, friendly letters. She put the luggage receipt on my boarding pass and fastened the tag to my luggage. As usual, she forgot to put a priority sticker on. I wondered whether to point this out to her, but I decided against it. I'm fed up of constantly reminding the check in people how to do their job. Anyway, the baggage handlers never pay any attention to the priority stickers. My bags are always last off the aircraft, no matter what their priority. I pay several hundred dollars every year for the privilege of having my bags ignored by the baggage handlers. I think it's quite a bargain really; well worth the money.

I went off to the lounge where I poured free food and drink into myself. Then I boarded the plane for my flight to Auckland. The safety demonstration was unusually entertaining. The purser had the volume on the speakers turned down to ultra-low and he appeared to be whispering into his microphone as well. And so, to the accompaniment of a faint susurrus somewhat akin to the soporific sound of the sea kissing the beach, the cabin crew fluttered and postured, tightening and loosening their seat buckles, indicating their nearest exits, putting on their life jackets and playing with their oxygen masks. It was a surrealistic dance by mad marionettes; a silent movie without subtitles.

The plane bounced in to the air and zig-zagged through the clouds. We were served coffee, which immediately caused massive turbulence. Before I knew it, we were landing in Auckland. I made my way to the luggage carousel. Lots of bags appeared, but none of them were mine. I wasn't too worried. I generally have to wait quite some time before my luggage arrives. However after a while it began to dawn on me that I was waiting longer than usual. All around me people were walking off encumbered with suitcases. The carousel got emptier and emptier, the people fewer and fewer. Eventually the horrible truth dawned. There were no more bags on the carousel and no passengers left in the baggage claim area. I was all alone. Qantas had lost my luggage.

Thraxas At War is the seventh and latest in an ongoing series of pulp fantasy noir detective tales by Martin Scott. It seems the orc armies are threatening to lay siege to Turai again, as they did many years before in Thraxas' youth. Along with the rest of the population of Turai, Thraxas is mobilised into the army and hasty allies are sought from neighbouring city-states and from the elves across the sea. Not only does Thraxas have to put up with these very inconvenient calls upon his time, but he also has a murder to investigate. A senior official is dead, poisoned by a pastry. A man is arrested for the murder. His wife is sure he is innocent and she hires Thraxas to find the real killer. Makri, the half-orc barmaid at The Avenging Axe is heavily involved with the Association of Gentlewomen and is running reading classes in all her spare moments. Thraxas keeps stumbling across her, because she uses his office when he is not around, much to his annoyance.

The mixture as before winds inexorably on its way. By now the series is quite formulaic and we all know what to expect. Thraxas finds the real killer, Makri's reading classes have an ulterior motive and the orcs invade. As the novel ends the fighting is still going on. Doubtless that plot thread will be unravelled in the eighth book in the series.

Janet Evanovich is doing much the same thing as Martin Scott. Her novels about Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, are now nine volumes old. To The Nines sees Stephanie searching for Samuel Singh who disappears just as his work visa is running out. Stephanie's boss (and cousin) Vinnie had posted bond for Singh and stands to lose a lot of money if he isn't found. Stephanie's hunt takes her from New York to Las Vegas and back again. All the familiar characters and all the familiar jokes are recycled again.

I had high hopes for The Accusers, the new Lindsey Davis novel which is the fifteenth in an ongoing series about Falco, an investigator in Vespasian's Rome. But it turned out be one of the more tedious of the Falco books. It concerns the ins and outs of Roman financial machinations. Much of Falco's investigation into this takes place off stage and the results are presented to the reader third hand in the form of written reports that Falco sends to the people who hired him. Drama, dialogue and character interaction vanish from the page when these dry reports are read. And the subject matter is dull as ditchwater anyway. This one is for rabid enthusiasts only, and I suspect that even they will find it heavy going.

Chris Ryan has a new thriller out. It's called Greed. It's a Chris Ryan thriller.

Fortunately I had a new novel by Richard Morgan to liven up my reading week. Broken Angels is a sequel, of sorts, to his earlier Altered Carbon which I raved about a few months ago. Like the first novel, it is extraordinarily good. The viewpoint character is Takeshi Kovacs, who was also the viewpoint character in the earlier book. But Broken Angels takes place many years after the events of that story. This time Kovacs has been downloaded into a body (or "sleeve" in the jargon of the book) which is a mercenary soldier fighting in a brutal little war to put down a revolution on a planet called Sanction IV. While recovering from wounds in hospital, Kovacs is recruited into a covert team trying to secure an archaeological prize.

Part of the backdrop of the universe that Morgan paints in his novels is a vanished interstellar society which the characters in the book refer to as Martians (for that is where traces of them were first found). It seems unlikely that they originated on Mars, but it is a convenient name. Much of the technology that has been used to colonise the stars is derived from Martian remnants and generations of scholars have puzzled over what they left behind. And now, somewhere on Sanction IV it seems that an interstellar gate has been discovered that opens up to a Martian starship. Reputations and fortunes will be made if this turns out to be the case.

But war has broken out on Sanction IV. There was revolution in the air. The archaeological team split up. Some are dead, some have vanished and one is in a prison camp. The place where the find was originally reported has been devastated in a nuclear attack and is highly radioactive.

Kovacs has to put together a team to find the truth behind the rumours. He chooses casualties from recent battles and has them downloaded into sleeves derived from Maori stock (apparently Maori have a high genetic tolerance for radiation, though Morgan never tells us why). Some of the team are sent in to extract the archaeologist from the prison camp and the investigation begins.

It's a violent book and a grimly cynical one. Many factions have competing interests in the things that Kovacs' team unearth and there are plots within plots, bitter motives and dark double-crosses. Not all the participants are entirely sane and most are suffering from radiation sickness. We learn a lot about the Martians and we learn even more about the grim 26th century society that Morgan is starting to chronicle for us.

Richard Morgan has now published two utterly original and fascinating novels. I eagerly await his next one.

My next problem was finding someone to report my lost luggage to. All the office doors were firmly locked and all the check-in counters had massive queues in front of them. I joined the shortest queue which immediately came to a shuddering halt as a Julie Andrews look-alike at the head of it checked in dozens of awkwardly shaped brown paper packages tied up with string. The check-in lady looked as if these were a few of her least favourite things. But eventually I reached the desk.

"I've just arrived from Wellington," I said, "but my luggage hasn't. Here's the luggage receipt. What do I do now?"

"I don't know," said the lady. "My job is to check people in. I don't do lost luggage."

"Well can you please find someone who does?"

She looked around helplessly and transmitted telepathic waves of extreme distress. A man appeared and she gave him the luggage receipt. He took me to one side.

"Can you describe your luggage, please."

"It's a black cabin bag on wheels," I said. "Rather tatty. It's festooned with labels with my name and address on them. One of them is an Air New Zealand label. Do you suppose that could be why they didn't put it on the Qantas plane?"

"Oh no, sir," he said and vanished through a security door with my luggage receipt clutched in his hand.

About fifteen minutes later, just as I was starting to think I'd never see him or my receipt ever again, he came back.

"Well it's definitely not in the baggage area," he said, "and it's not in the hold of the plane. It seems to be lost."

"I know that," I said.

"Wait here. I'll make some phone calls."

He vanished again. I began to contemplate a desolate future with no underpants in it.

There was a puff of smoke, and the man reappeared.

"Well, there's news of a sort," he said. "There's no trace of your luggage in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin. I'll have to fill in a form and then we can put it in the computer. The computer will find your bag. Eventually."

Since I work with computers and know them intimately, this statement did not fill me with confidence. But we filled in the form and he issued me with a claim number which the computer would transmit to baggage handlers around the world.

"I'll telephone you as soon as I hear anything," he said. I went to get a taxi to my hotel.

I have to confess it - I've been reading literature. (Can you hear the capital L?). Robertson Davies was a Canadian writer of (apparently) great reputation, but I must confess that he has passed me by and only now, several years after his death have I discovered him. The Cornish Trilogy consists of three novels about the life and times of one Francis Cornish. The first novel, The Rebel Angels, takes place not long after Cornish's death. He was, it seems, a famous collector of art and of manuscripts and much of the novel concerns the doings of the executors of his will as they catalogue his vast and haphazard collection. There is a rumour that Cornish had a manuscript of an unknown novel by Rabelais and one of the executors (a university scholar) is anxious to obtain it. The second novel, What's Bred In The Bone, is the biography of Francis Cornish narrated by two angels. One of the angels was largely responsible for the path that Cornish's life took, and he glories in it though at times it seems like an act of retrospective self-justification. The last book, The Lyre of Orpheus continues the tale started in the first.

To a certain extent, Davies reminds me of Aldous Huxley, a writer of whom I was much enamoured in my youth. Like Huxley, his characters are willing to sit down and discuss life, the universe and everything at the drop of a hat. Unlike Huxley, they are far more rounded in their views of the world and actually exhibit a large degree of personality, something that Huxley's characters often sorely lacked. The extremely revolting Parlabane in the first novel considers himself a philosopher par excellence but that doesn't stop him being also a lecher and a drunk.

Davies viewed the world through intellectual eyes (often with a religious cast that sometimes sits a little uneasily with me - I think David Lodge did religious scruples a lot better) but his saving grace is the inordinately clever wit with which he pursues his aims. He is seldom laugh out loud funny but he is often deliciously wicked. Much of the "action" of the novels takes place at the College of Saint John and the Holy Ghost, known to all of its staff by the cognomen "Spook". Even the deepest thinkers on the staff take delight in the nickname, much to the irritation of the rector.

The surface incidents are fun (you can certainly read Davies purely for the sake of story and character, always the mark of a great writer) but he has far deeper fish to fry and if you want to peel back the layers, they do seem to go on forever. And that too is the mark of a great writer. I positively devoured The Cornish Trilogy and immediately went and bought everything else by Davies that is still in print (alas, only about half of his oeuvre), but even that is very substantial. I anticipate much wonderful reading ahead of me.

The Merry Heart is a posthumous collection of Davies's essays and lectures. In these articles he muses (often autobiographically) on the business of writing and the meaning of art. Where do writers get their ideas? Davies contends that you may as well ask a spider where it gets its thread! Both questions have the same answer. He has much to say about life and literature and though he is very familiar with all the great books (and, to my great delight, somewhat scathing about many) he also has much to say about the Little Red Hen and Chums annual. He makes no real distinction between the worth of any of these and that alone is enough to endear him to me. Any aspiring writer (and every reader) will find these essays a treasure trove of insight. They are also very funny, in their own rather droll way. The more I read of Robertson Davies the more his huge sense of humour attracts me.

Robert Silverberg has on occasion had pretensions to literature (and has succeeded in those pretensions many times - there are a lot of hugely worthy books buried among the vast amounts of trash that have poured from his tripewriter over the years). Roma Eterna is one of these worthy books. He's been noodling with the idea for a long time - the book is a collection of short stories and novellas that assume that the Roman Empire never fell, and they tell the tale of the Empire over hundreds of years, well in to what you and I would call the twentieth century. The stories have been produced piecemeal over many years (and have seen previous publication in diverse journals) and I think that the thought and effort that those years have required have added a depth and a gloss to what is now a quite wonderful story cycle, and it is a pleasure to see them all collected together into a single book. This is Silverberg's best work for at least a decade and I'm proud to own it.

Allen Steele, on the other hand, has no literary pretensions whatsoever, and has never claimed them. He just writes damn good yarns in a traditional manner and there's nothing wrong with that. American Beauty is a collection of short stories, every single one of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Nobody could ever claim that the stories are anything but fluff - hugely enjoyable fluff, but nonetheless fluff. And that's not an insult; it's a compliment. However I must confess that I almost didn't read any of them. His introduction is such an incredibly annoying lump of condescending rubbish that I almost felt like throwing the damn book on the fire in the hope that it would act like a voodoo charm and give him heartburn.

He confesses (quite proudly) that he has often been rejected by British publishers because his work is "too American". He explains how he considers this to be a compliment, rather than an insult because yes, by God, his work IS American, rightly and proudly so, and these stories are more of the same and if you don't like the "America - love it or leave it" attitude that his stories espouse, go and crawl back under your rock and crap in the darkness and eat worms (I paraphrase slightly for dramatic effect).

Having thus insulted a huge part of his potential audience by his insular arrogance, he then goes on to talk about one of his favourite stories in the book (and it is a very good story indeed) called Agape Among The Robots. He takes the opportunity to explain to his readers that agape is a word derived from the Greek and he gives a phonetic guide on how to pronounce it (which he gets wrong, pig-ignorant American that he is) and then he spends a paragraph or so talking about what the word means. Obviously he assumes that his audience is far too dumb ever to have heard of this word before; that they are, one and all, completely unsure of how to pronounce it; and that they are, of course, utterly unable to use a dictionary to look it up in if they do happen to be among the minority that are unfamiliar with it. What a patronising attitude. How dare he assume that his readers are all ignoramuses! How dare he condescend to them in such a manner! How wonderful that he demonstrates his own invincible ignorance by proving to be incapable of pronouncing the word properly himself! When I reached this point in the introduction I was seething with anger and I really did not want to read the stories at all. I only carried on because I was alone in a hotel room and there was nothing worth watching on the TV. I'm glad I persevered - the stories are wonderful. But his introduction is a perfect example of how to lose friends and alienate people. What a buffoon!

It was a relief to turn to Christopher Moore's new novel Fluke. I don't think Moore will ever again approach the inspired blasphemy of his last novel Lamb, but Fluke definitely runs it a very close second. Nate Quinn is a marine biologist. He is in love with the sea, in love with the whales, in lust with his new assistant Amy. He sails the blue waters off Maui and records the songs of migrating whales and tries to determine their meaning. Why do the humpback whales sing?

And then, one day, he photographs a whale as it sounds and dives. And painted in big broad letters on the flukes of its tail are the words "Bite Me".

How odd.

Later, back on shore, he discovers that the whale has telephoned the lady he rents his house from and has asked her to ask him to bring a hot pastrami sandwich on rye when next he goes to sea. Apparently the whale has cravings. Nate pays no attention to this silly message and is more than a little perturbed when he next goes to sea and is swallowed by the whale. Where's my sandwich?

The whale and its crew take him 623 feet beneath the sea off the coast of Chile. And you'll be amazed at what he finds there. Oddly, Amy doesn't seem very surprised at all.

The book is at least as weird as I've made it sound and twice as good as I've claimed it to be. It's one of the great ones. Buy it. Now.

I have very fond memories of a short story called The Snowball Effect by Katherine Maclean. It impressed Brian Aldiss as well and he included it in one of the definitive anthologies that he put together for Penguin Books in the 1960s and that is where I first came across it. It concerns itself with sociological theory. A university professor has strong ideas about how social groups cohere. He feels that he knows how they thrive and grow, and why some of them wither and die. He determines to put his theory to the test, and he chooses the Watashaw Ladies Sewing Circle as a test case. He seeds this small group with the ideas that (he is certain) will cause it to thrive. He succeeds beyond all imagining and the Watashaw Ladies Sewing Circle takes over the whole world!

It was because of my memories of this wonderful story that I purchased The Diploids which is a collection of Katherine Maclean's short stories from the 1960s which has recently been republished by Wildside Press. I must confess that I was disappointed. The collection includes The Snowball Effect and the story is as wonderful as ever it was, but the other stories in the collection have not aged well. They are pulp productions for the pulp magazines in which they first appeared and I think that's a pity. Maclean had the potential for greatness, but she never quite made it.

Dave Langford has been amazingly prolific of late. He Do The Time Police In Different Voices is the third Langford book I've reviewed in as many months. This one is a collection of parodies. Many years ago, Drunken Dragon Press published a short collection of Langford parodies called The Dragonhiker's Guide To Battlefield Covenant at Dune's Edge: Odyssey Two. It is now fabulously rare, and I guard my copy jealously, for the parodies are very funny and very vicious. The stories from this early collection make up the first half of He Do The Time Police In Different Voices with an extra 40,000 words or so of additional material in the second half. If you love science fiction, if you love jokes, if you like to laugh at your heroes, if you want to read a short story called Sex Pirates of the Blood Asteroids which contains the immortal line:

...Malsenn felt the unmistakable twinges in his old H-bomb wound which meant that the sun would shortly go nova.

then this is the book for you. It's very funny, very cruel, and very wonderful and it demonstrates perfectly Langford's huge knowledge of and great love of the SF field. Oddly it's a gentle book as well, because it is also an homage. It made me feel good all over even while I was cracking up with gleeful laughter.

The blurb contains a review of one of the parodies by Michael Swanwick. He calls it: "Almost pointlessly brilliant".

I explained my lack of luggage to the taxi driver and he was very sympathetic. "Woolworths is still open," he said. "They open 24 hours a day. Shall we stop there so you can re-equip yourself with essentials?"

"That's a good idea," I said. "I'll charge it to the company. After all, I have a company credit card."

I bought a roll of dental floss, a tube of toothpaste, a carton with a toothbrush in it, a bottle of shampoo, a bottle of conditioner, a packet of underpants, and a box of socks. It came to $73 and Woolworths refused my company credit card so I had to pay cash and claim it back later. My company credit card came in a weetbix packet and absolutely nobody except a few eccentric restaurants deep in the wilds of Lower Slobbovia will accept it.

Later that evening I got a phone call from Qantas. "We've found your luggage. It's in Sydney."

"Well of course," I said. "After all it was clearly marked AKL in large friendly letters. AKL is very similar to SYD. They've both got three letters. Anyone could easily get them confused."

"Quite," said the Qantas person. "We'll have it flown back on the first flight tomorrow. That's due in at lunchtime, so you should get your luggage back sometime tomorrow afternoon."

He was as good as his word. At five minutes to five the following afternoon, a taxi arrived with my luggage in it. The bag looked rather dissipated. It had obviously been making the most of its free evening in Sydney and appeared to have hit all the hot spots. It was now somewhat hung over and eager to rest. I took it to my room and gently unpacked it.

The worrying thing about all of this is how extraordinarily inept Qantas has proved itself to be in its implementation of the security rules that have been imposed on us all following the recent spate of terrorist attacks. Unaccompanied luggage is not allowed on planes these days. If a passenger ignores the boarding call and fails to turn up for a flight, their luggage is always unloaded from the hold. After all, it could have a bomb in it. The airlines go to extraordinary lengths to reassure the travelling public that they are safe. We all have to go through security check after security check. Our nail clippers are confiscated and the gadgets on our key rings are scrutinised with an extremely intense scroot.

But behind the scenes, nothing has changed. The X-ray arches and security guards with wands are just so much window-dressing. They provide only hollow psychological reassurance. My luggage still went to Sydney. An international flight took off with an unaccompanied bag in its hold, thereby breaking every security rule in the book. A whole plane full of people could have been blown out of the skies if my underpants had been just a trifle more lethal than they normally are.

I think Qantas has some serious soul searching to do.

Thraxas At War Martin Scott Orbit
Janet Evanovich To The Nines Headline
Lindsey Davies The Accusers Century
Chris Ryan Greed Century
Richard Morgan Broken Angels Gollancz
Robertson Davies The Cornish Trilogy Penguin
Robertson Davies The Merry Heart Penguin
Robert Silverberg Roma Eterna Eos
Allen M. Steele American Beauty Five Star
Christopher Moore Fluke Morrow
Katherine Maclean The Diploids Wildside Press
David Langford He Do The Time Police In Different Voices Cosmos Books
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