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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (mea maxima culpa)

Alan And Robin Get Wet

The weather in New Zealand has been less than clement of late. As I write, it is the height of summer, and we have just been experiencing the worst storms since records began. Hurricane force winds and driving rain day after day after day. Everyone is looking forward to winter. It might calm down and get warmer then.

It’s my fault of course.

It all started four years ago. We were on holiday in Australia, staying in Robin’s house.

"I think", said Robin, struck with inspiration, "that it might be a good idea to rent out my house here in Perth while I’m living in New Zealand."

"Not a bad idea," I said. "Of course we really ought to pack it all up. You don’t want the tenants using your stuff."

Robin got all thoughtful. "Hmmm," she said, and set wheels in motion. Arrangements were made.

"These," she said proudly, "are boxes." She looked around for a moment. "Over there," she explained, "are things. Put the things in the boxes."

All was crystal clear. I now knew exactly what I had to do. "Of course," I said, and did as I was told. The boxes were large; many things went in them. Some of the things were also large. And heavy.

"Now," said Robin when all was done, "I think the boxes need putting over here."

I hastened to obey, but somehow, overnight, somebody had come into the house and nailed all the boxes to the floor. I heaved and struggled and managed to move the boxes, ripping great holes in the floor as the tortured floorboards gave up the unequal struggle. Robin didn’t notice and I covered the gaping holes with rugs. Perhaps the new tenants would fall through and kill themselves; but only after they’d set up the direct debit authority to pay the rent. I piled the boxes neatly and the moving men came to take them away.

"Nice one," said the moving man as he saw the tattered remains of the floorboards beneath the boxes. "The box nailer came in last night and nailed all the boxes to the floor, didn’t he?"

"Yes," I said. "But don’t tell Robin. She hasn’t realised yet."

"No worries, mate. She’ll be thirsty work though, getting those floorboards back into place."

"Have a beer."

"Good on yer, mate. Don’t mind if I do. We’ll get this lot out of the way in two shakes of a dead dingo’s donger!"

I left it all to the experts.

Arthur C. Clarke has always claimed that he has so many ideas for novels that he’ll never have enough time to write them all. Perhaps this accounts for the many "collaborative novels" he has published over the years; novels where he has provided a basic idea and some other writer has done all of the hard work. Those novels have proved to be a mixed bunch – some of them have been good, some have been bad and several have been absolutely dire. However his new collaboration with Stephen Baxter, Time’s Eye is just superb. Even though Baxter did much of the writing, Clarke was extremely closely involved in the project and the book highlights the strengths of both writers. Each has acted as a brake upon the other, and it showcases all of the things that they both do superbly well, and contains none of the things that they do badly.

It is, of course, the first of a series. These days I guess that is almost mandatory. The series as a whole is referred to as A Time Odyssey and the homage that pays to Clarke’s own earlier 2001 – A Space Odyssey is quite deliberate. The book has many themes in common with the earlier one, but the authors claim that it is neither a sequel nor a prequel to the Space Odyssey, rather it is orthogonal, set at right angles. I’m not sure that makes a lot of sense, but never mind.

The Earth, it would appear, has been under observation by the Firstborn for almost its entire lifetime. However the Firstborn have remained unknown to the inhabitants of the Earth until, in one terrifying moment, they literally carve up the Earth and then reassemble it from pieces taken seemingly at random from throughout time. There is no longer a single timeline on the rebuilt planet – instead all who live on the Earth find themselves sharing their lives with people from a patchwork quilt of eras from prehistory up to 2037 when everything stops. Quite why 2037 is the cut off point remains one of many central mysteries; but it soon becomes clear that the juxtaposition of eras is not coincidental. In Time’s Eye, a nineteenth century British garrison from an outpost on the border of Afghanistan teams up with the crew of a UN helicopter from 2037 and the great army of Alexander the Great to combat the threat of annihilation from the Mongol hordes of Genghiz Khan. And hovering over them and observing the clash of mighty armies are enigmatic floating silver orbs, impervious to all weapons and impossible to communicate with.

The book is absolutely magnificent. This is what science fiction is all about and Times’s Eye has the truly authentic, spine-tingling magic about it that makes it stand head and shoulders above all the competition. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Liz Williams is a writer who is new to me. I picked up Nine Layers of Sky simply because the blurb looked interesting. Elena Irinova is a scientist who used to work for the Soviet space programme. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, her job simply disappeared and now she cleans office buildings. Her aim is to save enough money to pay for visas so that she and her family can emigrate to Canada. She is willing to take any opportunity that might contribute funds to her savings and as the book opens, she is helping with a smuggling operation, importing black market goods into Tashkent. There is an incident on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and through a strange combination of circumstances, Elena comes into possession of a mysterious artefact made of an unknown metal.

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Ilya Muromyets is trying to die. He’s been stabbed in an argument over drugs. But try as he might, he isn’t allowed to die just yet. For eight hundred years, the rusalka have looked after him, healing his wounds, keeping his body alive. Soon Ilya and Elena will become involved with each other and will come to realise that the great failures and tragedies visited on Russia over the centuries were not necessarily inevitable. There were other possibilities, other opportunities; and other realities can open and close.

In some ways the novel is thematically linked to the time odyssey of Baxter and Clarke, but I think it suffers in comparison. The scenes set in contemporary Russia and its border satellites are extremely well written and grittily real. Even the outright fantasy sequences involving Ilya Muromyets are highly convincing, perhaps because they are set in semi-historically real environments. But as soon as the action switches to other realities, other dimensions if you like, it starts to seem thin and unconvincing, a little bit unimaginative and almost clichéd.

There is no doubt that Liz Williams has great books in her future. She is a writer to watch. Nine Layers of Sky is good, but it isn’t great.

The Genesis Quest by Donald Moffitt is every terrible thing the blurb would make you believe it would be. After intercepting radio messages from Earth, Nar scientists have discovered the secret of human life and have re-created it. Now human beings live in close proximity with the Nar.

One of these humans, Bram, has always wanted to travel to Earth to learn about his heritage. It seems unlikely this will ever happen – the distances involved are far too large and could never be covered in a single lifetime. But then a scientific breakthrough begins to suggest possibilities.

It’s a pretty crap book, pretty crappily written. It’s dull and pedestrian (and it’s an extremely heavy-handed and utterly unsubtle political allegory as well). Everything’s out of the stock cupboard. Don’t bother with it.

The new Reginald Hill novel is called Good Morning Midnight. It’s the latest in his ongoing series about the detectives Dalziel and Pascoe. And it’s just brilliant.

Ten years ago, Pal Maciver committed suicide in his study. He blew the top of his head off with a shotgun. He didn’t leave a note, but open on his desk was a book of poems by Emily Dickinson. And now it is ten years later and Pal Maciver’s son (also called Pal Maciver) has killed himself in the same study, in the same manner, and the book of Emily Dickinson poems on the desk is open to the same place.

Dalziel was in charge of the investigation into the first suicide, Pascoe is in charge of this one. To begin with at least, he feels under considerable pressure from Dalziel to treat it as just another suicide and to close the case on that note. But the coincidences bother him and he uncovers some murky family secrets. Both men may have had something ugly to hide. Even Dalziel himself may not be entirely uninvolved in the machinations behind the scenes.

In a way, this one is Reginald Hill’s take on the classic "locked room" mystery. Sooner or later I think all detective novelists have a go at it, with a greater or lesser degree of success. Hill’s approach is more than a little idiosyncratic, which is all to the good. He delights in the fishiest of red herrings and some of his characters border on the extremely grotesque (such as the very prim and proper dominatrix Dolores, the Lady of Pain). By turns laugh-out-loud funny and extremely sad, this is Reginald Hill at his very, very best.

Four years passed and Robin said, "Let’s go back to Perth for a holiday."

"What a good idea," I said. And so it was done.

Perth was sweltering in a forty degree heat wave. "Let’s check out the storage place where my things are," said Robin. "We can sort out the rubbish and throw it away and then maybe take the rest back to New Zealand. It’s silly to pay storage fees when we could make good use of the stuff."

We drove to the storage shed. The air conditioner in the car made the journey a pleasant one. The brown, sere landscape outside drifted past, burned dry and dusty under the pitiless sun. Soon we arrived at the storage depot. Row upon row of identical concrete lockups baked in the sweltering heat. I got out of the car and rivers of sweat immediately broke out all over my body and flowed downwards to gush in never ending streams from the toes of my sandals. I squelched over to the lockup and Robin opened it. I recognised the boxes immediately. The floorboards were all gone; the moving man had done a great job.

"We’ll go through the boxes one by one," said Robin. "We’ll pile the junk up over here and take it to the tip tomorrow. We’ll repack all the good stuff and then arrange to have it picked up and delivered to New Zealand. Let’s start with this box."

Interestingly the boxes appeared to have been spot-welded to the concrete. However we were in luck; the caustic properties of the great lake of sweat I was paddling in quickly dissolved the welds, and etched box shaped depressions deep into the floor. I chose a box at random and opened it.

"Jigsaw puzzles," I said.

"Ooohhh goody!" said Robin, elbowing me out of the way. "Let me see."

She sat down on the floor of the lockup and spread the pieces around on a spare space. It didn’t take her long to have a rough rectangle blocked out. "Do you think this looks like sky?" she asked, holding out a piece for my inspection.

"I don’t think so," I said. "Looks more like sea to me. If you examine it closely, you can see a fragment of shark."

"No," said Robin, unconvinced. "I think that’s part of the wing of an eagle."

I opened another box.

"What shall I do with all these Anne McCaffery books?" I asked. "Can we put them on the pile for the tip?"

"No," said Robin, affronted. "Oooh – I haven’t seen these for four years. Gosh, I missed them."

She began to read The White Dragon, holding the book in her left hand and reading with her left eye while her right hand and right eye continued to put the jigsaw puzzle together. I’ve always admired Robin’s ability to multi-task.

"This box," I said, "appears to have several BBC computers in it."

"Oh, plug them in," insisted Robin. "Plug them in NOW! I must have a game of Elite!"

"These Dr. Who videos?" I asked. "Can I throw those away?"

"No, no! Find the video player. I want to watch the episode where the daleks say ‘Exterminate’ for the first time."

"What about the sewing machine?"

"Curtains," shrieked Robin. "I have to make curtains for the lounge. Right this minute!"

"This box is full of power tools. Drill, sander, a miniature lathe."

"Bookshelves! I want to build bookshelves. And a table. Wood! I must have wood."

By now all of Robin’s limbs and most of her brain were engaged with multiple activities. It seemed the perfect time to introduce a delicate topic.

"When we get this pile of stuff back to New Zealand, what are we going to do with it? Where are we going to put it?"

"I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that," said Robin. "I think we’ll have to build six more rooms."

"That’s a good idea," I said supportively. "But I have a much more cunning plan. There is a rather large room downstairs which we aren’t currently using for anything. Perhaps you could take that over."

"But it’s icky!" said Robin. "Bare concrete floor. My toes will freeze and drop off."

"OK. We’ll get that seen to."

And so it was decided.

In my last article, I mentioned a series of novels by Lawrence Block about a sort of private detective called Matt Scudder. At the time I’d only read a couple of books from quite late in the series. Well now I’ve read all the rest, and I think it is time to discuss the series as a whole. I’ve listed all fifteen of the novels in sequence in the bibliography at the end of this article, even though two of them were discussed in detail last month.

They are undeniably fifteen separate books published over a long period of time. They tell fifteen separate stories and each novel is classically constructed with a beginning, a middle and an end. The books can be read in or out of sequence; the order probably doesn’t matter at all in terms of simple enjoyment of a single story. Nevertheless there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that here we have a continuous novel; just one story that is currently fifteen volumes long.

It’s an ambitious undertaking. Other writers (many of them SF writers) have tried similar projects, with mixed success. It’s even remotely possible that some of these failures could have been the inspiration for Block’s own (extremely successful) attempt. Certainly Block himself is an SF fan even though he doesn’t write in the genre. There are occasional veiled references to the field in his works and he even dedicated one of his early novels to Spider Robinson (though amusingly the publisher lost the dedication page and so it never appeared in print).

You could call the Scudder novels an Odyssey (that word again). They follow a man on a journey which takes him through most of his adult life. Scudder is a relatively young man in the first novel. By the fifteenth, he is well into his fifties. There are many highs and lows, a lot of triumphs and tragedies, in the years in between.

In the first novel, Scudder is about as far down life’s ladder as it is possible to be and still have a rung to stand on. He’s resigned from the police force because, while off duty, he was present when a robbery was taking place. He chased the robbers and shot them. He killed one and wounded another and he received a commendation for his efforts. But one of his shots ricocheted and killed a seven year old girl. That hurts Scudder’s conscience. But quite apart from that terrible incident, the pressures of his police job have effectively already wrecked his life anyway. He is divorced, he seldom sees his children and he seeks far too much solace in bottles of bourbon. He has few friends. Nobody much cares if he lives or dies, including Scudder himself. By the fifteenth novel he is happily married, he hasn’t touched alcohol for many, many years, he is surrounded by many loyal and loving friends and is generally at peace with himself. That’s a long journey to take and it has not been without incident and not without pain. And all of that has been the material for fifteen novels of course.

One of Block’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to draw characters, to make them come alive and be convincing. Not only that, he has the enviable ability to make the reader admire people who should really be quite repellant. One of Scudder’s closest friends is a gangster, a completely amoral man who kills without compunction. There is a story that having killed one of his most bitter gangland rivals, he carried the head of his enemy round in a bowling ball bag and showed it off to all his cronies. Despite all this, he comes across as an extremely sympathetic character and when, in one novel, he finds himself and his gangland empire threatened, it is Scudder to whom he turns for help, and Scudder does not let him down.

And then, at the opposite extreme, there is TJ. When we first meet him he is just a street kid with a smart tongue. Scudder uses him on a couple of cases and he worms his way into Scudder’s life, partly by his wit and partly because of the burgeoning friendship between these two quite different people as each teases and twists and tests the boundaries of their relationship. By the fifteenth book TJ is pretty much a full partner in Scudder’s rather informal business.

Scudder isn’t the only character in the series who grows and changes in response to the trials and tribulations that life hands out, and that too is part of the enormous strength of the series. There are far too many books in which the supporting cast are seldom more than spear carriers, never properly filled in. You don’t get that impression from Block’s novels. Even the characters with the smallest roles are fully fleshed out and you just know that when they leave the page they are going home to a real life, a real family, a real place where they will live out their own stories, quite separate from Scudder’s. Who knows? Maybe we’ll bump into them again one day and we’ll ask them what they’ve been doing and we’ll be really interested in the answers.

Much of the material in the books is very dark. That’s unavoidable when you write novels about murder, about kidnapping, about drugs. Block isn’t scared of blackness and he doesn’t pull any punches when he shows us the seamy side of life. Some scenes need a strong stomach to read. But even at his darkest, Block never loses his sense of humour and the books are enlivened by great wit and much mirth.

The whole sequence comes across as very well rounded in every sense. There are strong plots, strong characters, and deep insights. There is nail-biting tension and the relief of laughter. It’s an incredible and wholly admirable achievement.

Stand by for number sixteen.

Once we got back to New Zealand, we asked around. Who is good at floors? There was an outstanding unanimity of opinion. Carpet 2000 were the best. We drove there. They were closed.

Nothing daunted, we went back the next day. An astonishingly efficient and extremely pleasant husband and wife team answered all our questions, told us what we needed and guided us to a solution.

"We’ll be round on Saturday 14th to lay the carpet."

"It’s a deal."

Saturday 14th February 2004 dawned. It was a fine day though rather cloudy. A man turned up, festooned with carpet and intriguingly shaped bits of wood which had special nails in them. He laid these around the borders of the room and hammered the nails deep into the concrete. I’d never seen nails go into concrete before and I was genuinely impressed. Perhaps the boxes in the lockup had been nailed rather than spot-welded. Hmmmm…

"Did you live in Perth a few years back?" I asked. "Was it you who sneaked into houses and lockups overnight and nailed all the boxes to the floor?"

He looked shifty. "No squire. Not me! Never been to Perth in my life. I’d hate to go there. Everyone tells me it’s as dry as a dead dingo’s donger!"

My suspicions were confirmed. He spoke the language fluently!

He put down the underlay and then the carpet, attaching it cunningly to the bits of wood so that all was smooth and tickly beneath the feet.

"There you are, squire. All done. Brand new carpet. Makes a big difference to the room, doesn’t it?"

I had to agree.

It is a well known fact that serving coffee in aeroplanes causes turbulence; and that washing a car causes rain. What is less well known is that laying a carpet causes hurricane force winds, and monsoon-like downpours for days on end. This is so that the wind can drive the rain in through the doors and windows so as to saturate the newly laid carpet and ruin it.

No sooner had the carpet layer left than the heavens opened and the rain pounded down. It flattened the grass and vast torrents poured down the road.

On the evening of the day upon which the carpet was laid, David Bowie was giving a concert in Wellington. Robin and I went.

Bowie pranced upon the proscenium, out into the crowd, singing his heart out. I felt quite guilty as the rain poured down upon him. He donned an anorak and pulled the hood up and continued to sing, making the most marvellous music. The crowd was entranced.

At the end of one song, he turned to face the band who were safe and dry upon the covered stage behind him.

"Come on in," he invited them. "The water’s fine!"

Every so often, a stage hand would slink on to the set and push the excess water off the proscenium with an extremely large mop. It slopped down into the crowd, but it didn’t seem to dampen their ardour.

"We got everything here in Wellington," said Bowie. "We got squeegees, we got mops. Oh look! A towel!"

Like all good SF fans, Bowie knew where his towel was. He held it tight across his body and strummed it like a guitar.

"See!" he cried. "It’s an air towel!"

He crumpled it and dried his hair with it.

"Now it’s a hair towel!"

He laughed immoderately at his own joke. He was obviously having a great time, despite the weather. He sang another song.

Robin and I went home, buoyed up with enthusiasm after a wonderful concert. I went to the downstairs room to check out the carpet. Dry as a bone!

"Ya boo sucks, weather gods. I’ve got great drainage. You won’t get me that way."

For the next two weeks they tried and tried. The rain poured down in solid sheets and the driving wind hurled it angrily in every direction. It sought out the most minute cracks, the most minuscule crevices. All over New Zealand houses were flooded and roads were closed.

But my carpet stayed dry. I’m grateful for that. But I’m sorry that I almost sunk the whole country beneath the sea, just because I had a carpet laid.

I won’t do it again. Promise.

Stephen Baxter & Arthur C. Clarke Time’s Eye Del Rey
Liz Williams Nine Layers of Sky Bantam
Donald Moffitt The Genesis Quest ibooks
Reginald Hill Good Morning Midnight Harper Collins
Lawrence Block The Sins of The Fathers Orion
Lawrence Block Time To Murder And Create Orion
Lawrence Block In The Midst Of Death Orion
Lawrence Block A Stab In The Dark Orion
Lawrence Block Eight Million Ways To Die Orion
Lawrence Block When The Sacred Ginmill Closes Orion
Lawrence Block Out On The Cutting Edge Orion
Lawrence Block A Ticket To The Boneyard Orion
Lawrence Block A Dance At The Slaughterhouse Orion
Lawrence Block A Walk Among The Tombstones Orion
Lawrence Block The Devil Knows You’re Dead Orion
Lawrence Block A Long Line Of Dead Men Orion
Lawrence Block Even The Wicked Orion
Lawrence Block Everybody Dies Orion
Lawrence Block Hope To Die Orion
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