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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (logos dicere)

Twisting By The Pool

Contour – New Zealand’s 25th Annual SF Convention, Rotorua, Easter 2004

I set off in my trusty spaceship to drive to the science fiction convention on the planet of Rotting Rua in the centre of the New Zealand galaxy. Fortunately I had a good contour map. I brought a present with me for the guest of honour but somehow or other the wrapping got torn off so I thought I’d better do something about repairing it. I diverted my spaceship to Larry Niven’s Stringworld where I unravelled a whole ball of superstring to tie the parcel up again. But something must have gone wrong because the more knots I tied in the string, the worse the quantum state of the parcel became. I’m afraid the physics and mathematics of string theory will always be a black hole in my understanding.

I resumed my journey – but it wasn’t long before I ran into another problem. The air supply in the cabin was becoming increasingly foul as I breathed in oxygen and breathed out carbon dioxide. I needed to refresh the air – blow out the carbon dioxide; put oxygen back again. The technical term for this is "scrubbing" the carbon dioxide. The chemists among you will be familiar with the term. Fortunately, I was passing close to a planet where the native inhabitants have a very curious biology. They breath in carbon dioxide and blow out oxygen. A whole planet full of scrubbers! Just what I needed to blow the foul air away. I landed immediately and called in all the scrubbers to give me the best blow job they could manage.

And then, suitably refreshed, I continued on my way. I brought one of the scrubbers with me as a companion so that the emergency I had just survived would not occur again. She’d be useful for hauling my ashes. Out of the space drive, you understand.

It is unlikely that the late Patrick O’Brian will ever write another book. I feel deeply deprived of historical literature because of this dismal fact. However all is not lost – the (comparatively) youthful Allan Mallinson has come to my attention and his ongoing series of novels about a young army officer in the post-Waterloo British army is rising high in my affections.

Like far too many other people in the world, Allan Mallinson has no idea how to spell his own christian name, but I’m willing to forgive him because of the brilliance of his stories.

The first book in the series is A Close Run Thing wherein we are introduced to a young cornet called Matthew Hervey. The year is 1814 and Napoleon has finally been defeated and sent into exile. The world is looking forward to peace. Hervey sees little future for himself in the army – the mildly corrupt system of purchasing promotions means that he is unlikely to ascend the ladder (for he has no private means) and the peacetime army is likely to be small and extremely select.

However Napoleon escapes from exile and returns to France and the 1815 campaign against him culminates in the battle of Waterloo where the menace is finally ended. Hervey plays a decisive role in this battle and comes to the notice of the Duke of Wellington himself. Perhaps his future in the post war army may be assured after all…

Most authors would have made Waterloo the dramatic climax of the final book in an extended series and I was initially puzzled as to why Mallinson chose to start his story with it. After all, with the world at peace, surely there would be little chance for adventure and derring do in the subsequent books? But in the introduction to one of the later novels, Mallinson points out that in all the years since the battle of Waterloo, there has never, ever been a year when British soldiers have not fought and died in battle. So far, Hervey has served in India and America, and I am sure there are many more trouble spots in his future.

Mallinson’s books lack the humour of O’Brian’s, but the sense of historical time and place that he brings to his work is at least as good as (if not better than) O’Brian’s. Also, like O’Brian, his writing style owes much to Jane Austen (a debt he acknowledges openly in the text). These are books to wallow in for they bring the times alive. And it helps that Hervey and his companions are interesting people with whom it is easy to identify. They are extraordinarily good books and I look forward to a lot more reading as the series grows. Mallinson is approximately my age and so hopefully he has a long and productive life ahead of him.

The blurb on Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time turned me right off. The novel is about an autistic child and I was sure it would be mawkish and sentimental, the literary equivalent to the disease-of-the-week movies that sometimes come along and infest our screens. However it garnered so many good reviews, and so many people recommended it to me that when it finally appeared in paperback, I bought it.

And it is just magnificent. It has been many, many years since a book moved and excited me the way that this one did.

The story is told in the first person by fifteen year old Christopher Boone. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. He understands maths and enjoys logic puzzles. He makes lists and arranges things in order. He hates the colour yellow and the colour brown. He won’t eat if the different foods on his plate are touching each other. He himself hates to be touched. He understands almost nothing about other people and their emotions. When a neighbourhood dog is killed, he considers it to be murder and he sets out to solve the mystery, just like his hero Sherlock Holmes.

The book completely lacks sentimentality (at least on Christopher’s part) and is not the least bit mawkish. Haddon has done a superb job of presenting the world as seen through autistic eyes. That world is a cold, clear place which can only be fairly described as irrationally rational. There are rules, but they are often arbitrary ones. Food can touch other food before it is put on the plate. However if the different items touch each other on the plate they cannot be eaten.

But the scariest thing of all about the book is that again and again and again as Christopher said or did something that was absolutely typical of his world view, I found myself thinking: "But that’s perfectly normal – I do that all the time!"

Perhaps there’s a little bit of the autistic in all of us. Certainly I recognised myself and a lot of my friends in Christopher’s world. Make of that what you will.

This is a wise, bleak, funny and ultimately moving book which opened my eyes to aspects of life that I’d never previously seen. There are some books that are, quite rightly, considered to be classics and they are read and re-read by every generation. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is one of these.

My problems were not yet over. I could feel my energy levels dropping, and so in order to renew them I made my way to Frank Herbert’s Dune, the dessert planet, the place that supplies the entire galactic cluster with sweet things. Here are to be found inexhaustible chocolate mines and never ending rivers of treacle. Many New Zealanders work here, and they are extremely proud of their pavlova quarries. Australians are not allowed to quarry pavlova on Dune, the dessert planet. The New Zealanders throw lethal toffee kiwifruits at every Australian pavlova quarryman that they see.

However when I landed on the planet’s marzipan icing surface I was quite surprised to find that there was nobody there to greet me. Where was the traditional melange of rude, crude, bullying and moronic customs and immigration officials whose job it was to photograph me, fingerprint me and measure my blood sugar levels? There was absolutely nobody around at all. Dune, the dessert planet, was completely deserted!

My companion and I wandered the streets in a daze, pausing occasionally to nibble at a chocolate pudding tree and drink from a sherbet stream. And then the sun went down and night fell with a splash that splattered us with sweetness. As the darkness spread, the reason for the empty streets began to manifest itself. Vampire hordes were crawling out of the buildings. Now that the sun was safely down, the vampires were coming out from the protection of their cookie jars. They were hungry and they were looking for prey.

We were was terrified! These were the dreaded alucard vampires, the backward vampires with a sweet tooth who only drank the blood of diabetics. Clutching my insulin tightly to my chest, I grabbed hold of my companion’s hand and ran back to my spaceship with the vampires in hot pursuit.

Luckily I managed to escape them by the skin of my rice pudding and soon I was safely in orbit. Breathing a sigh of relief, I continued on my journey.

The Burglar On the Prowl is Lawrence Block’s latest novel about burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. All of the burglar books have the same plot – Bernie goes burgling. A murder takes place, Bernie gets the blame and has to find the real murderer so as to clear his name. It’s amazing how many times Block can put that plot through his typewriter and yet the reader still comes back for more. The burglar books are enormous fun (and often laugh out loud funny). If you like books like this, you will like this book.

John Dunning’s The Bookman’s Promise is the third in a series of what might be called literary detective novels. The hero, a detective called Cliff Janeway, gets involved in cases that have a literary connection and the novels are always full of recondite lore about books and bookmen. In this latest novel, Janeway attends an auction and buys an autographed first edition of a book by the legendary nineteenth century explorer and writer Richard Francis Burton. Janeway is contacted by an old woman called Josephine Gallant who believes the book is rightfully hers. She believes it to be from the collection of her grandfather who lived in Boston and who was a personal friend of Burton’s. The collection was disposed of on his death, but she claims there were many rare and fabulous items in it including a notebook that Burton kept during a journey through the Southern states just before the Civil War erupted. Indeed, Josephine claims that Burton might have had something to do with the events that led up to the start of the war.

Janeway, of course, is soon hot on the trail. Unfortunately, overlaying the literary quest is a fairly traditional murder mystery which muddies the water and detracts from the interest. The book would have been far more fascinating if it had concerned itself completely with the unravelling of the mystery surrounding Burton’s journal of his travels, and those portions of the book that are concerned with it are absolutely gripping. But the murder mystery that intertwines with this plot is simply an unnecessary distraction and it weakens the book irretrievably. The Bookman’s Promise is very much a curate’s egg.

The Game is Laurie King’s latest novel about the adventures of Mary Russell and her husband Sherlock Holmes. In this novel, they travel to India to unravel a mystery. The British spy Kimball O’Hara (immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim) has not been heard from for several years. Holmes and Russell are charged with the task of finding him and, if necessary, rescuing him. And so Russell and Holmes, like many before them, become players in the great game as they pit their wits and their talents against the other players on the North-West frontier.

The book is a delightful homage without ever sinking into pastiche. It is always tongue in cheek, but it is never disrespectful. It is an absolute, unalloyed delight from start to finish.

By now, the planet called Rotting Rua was in sight. The sulphur stench from the thermal areas was nicely ripe. As always, I found the smell to be very nostalgic. I studied chemistry at university and hydrogen sulphide was a commonly used reagent in the laboratory. Rotting Rua always brings back happy memories of fossicking about in the lab making bangs, smells and pretty colours. You should only study chemistry if you like bangs, smells and pretty colours. There’s no point to it otherwise. Some of the things you get to play with are pretty revolting; not to say dangerous. Chemists, unlike the general population, wash their hands before they go to toilet. Sometimes they wash their hands afterwards as well; but not often. Toilet nasties are positively benign compared to the evils that lurk in the average test tube.

I inhaled the delightful scent of Rotting Rua.

"Isn’t it wonderful?" I said to my companion.

"It’s fantastic!" she said ecstatically. "Nobody will ever know if I fart. And I won’t need to take a shower the whole time we are here. It’s paradise! Can we retire here, when the time comes?"

"Of course," I said. I was quite looking forward to not knowing when my companion farted. It would be a new experience for me.

Robert McCammon is known as a writer of horror fiction and, particularly in the highly acclaimed novel Boy’s Life, has built himself a solid reputation in the field. Speaks the Nightbird is his first book for about ten years and it represents quite a departure from the kind of things he has written in the past. It is a historical novel set in Carolina in 1699. There is a witch in the town of Fount Royal. She is called Rachel and she is dark and sultry and beautiful. Her ancestry is Portuguese, which accounts for her sultry beauty, but many people hate her for it and, with the memory of the Salem witch trials still fresh, she is accused and arrested.

Isaac Woodward, a magistrate and Matthew Corbett, his clerk, are called in to make a judgement in the case. The evidence is all against Rachel. Witches tools and paraphernalia are found in her home, she refuses to utter the lord’s prayer and witnesses swear under oath that they have seen her commit unspeakable acts with the devil himself.

The sense of history and atmosphere is very strong. McCammon skilfully evokes the shade of the past and the hysteria of the times, and his sense of place is extraordinarily vivid. The book is very grittily real. But in another sense it is deeply flawed. Matthew’s attitude is just a little bit too sceptical, a little bit too twenty-first century to be fully believable in the context of the seventeenth century. And his scepticism quickly turns the novel away from being a historical work and into a fairly traditional detective mystery as Matthew investigates the motives behind the persecution of Rachel. The denouement, when it comes, is extremely contrived and far too elaborate to be convincing. I was very disappointed to see the book marred by this weakness. From about half way through, McCammon completely loses control of the structure and all the initial promise fades away.

I have no idea why I picked up Simon Green’s novel Drinking Midnight Wine, particularly since the cover proudly announced that he was the perpetrator of something called the DEATHSTALKER SAGA (capitals in the original). But the storyline attracted my attention and so I bought it and I read it and damn me, it was actually quite good! So much for prejudice!

Toby Dexter works in a bookshop. It’s a dead end job and he is at a dead end. He has no life to speak of, and no prospect of one either. Every day he commutes to work on the train. Every day he sits close to an aloof and beautiful lady who, he thinks, has the most perfect mouth he has ever seen. Of course, she doesn’t even notice his existence.

One day they get off the train at the same station and he follows her through a door that shouldn’t exist (a moment ago it didn’t!) and they end up in the magical world of Mysterie, the counterpart to the rather more mundane world of Verite where Toby lives. To begin with it seems almost familiar (after all both Verite and Mysterie are aspects of each other). But he sees a rainbow which contains colours he’s never noticed before and when he tries to get money from a cash machine it showers him with banknotes because it claims that it likes his face.

You all know the plot – Mysterie is under threat and the ramifications will destroy Verite as well. Various supernatural beings are opposed to each other. Only Toby can save the day.

But it isn’t the plot that matters. What matters is the highly entertaining bits of business with which Simon Green fills his pages. The whole thing is full of nice wry humour and lots of understated (and terribly British, don’t you know) sarcasm. Green breathes life into a lot of hoary old clichés and the book is a highly entertaining and extremely intelligent romp.

I was feeling quite excited. Who would be at the convention? Would I get a chance to meet the writer of all those alternate history novels. What was his name? Oh yes – Harry Turtleplover. No – it was Lobstersparrow. Or was it Mockturtlepigeon? Tortoisevulture? Oysterchaffinch? Mussellduck? Oh, I remember – he’s actually a Maori writer who writes very funny stories full of wit and wisdom, and his name is Witi Pipimoa! He’s got a couple of cousins who are also starting to make names for themselves: Witi Repartee and Witi Iadmireher.

Perhaps the convention would organise my favourite game – a Frederik Pohl-vaulting contest. Or maybe they’d have an attempt on the populate-a-planet-from-scratch world record where the people taking part are supplied with an anatomically correct cardboard cut out model of Douglas Adams and an anatomically correct cardboard cut out model of Douglas Eves. It’s called a shaggy-God contest.

I made a mental note to check all of these details with the convention organiser Alan Parker-Pen, known as Ballpoint for short. Everybody knows Ballpoint. He’s the man with the commonly felt tip and a lot of lead in his pencil.

It turned out to be a great convention.

With thanks to the Harvard Lampoon, from whom (which??) I stole a pun. All the rest of this nonsense is my own work (I think) – but nevertheless I refuse to accept responsibility for it!

Allan Mallinson A Close Run Thing Bantam
Allan Mallinson The Nizam’s Daughters Bantam
Allan Mallinson A Regimental Affair Bantam
Allan Mallinson A Call To Arms Bantam
Allan Mallinson The Sabre’s Edge Bantam
Mark Haddon The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time Vintage
Lawrence Block The Burglar On The Prowl Morrow
John Dunning The Bookman’s Promise Scribner
Laurie R. King The Game Bantam
Robert McCammon Speaks The Nightbird River City
Simon R. Green Drinking Midnight Wine Gollancz
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