Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (nosbor cognoscentorum

Things I Have Learned This Month

The first thing I learned this month is that if you are attached (in every sense of the word) to your feet, you should never come between a lady and her corpse. Especially if the corpse hasn't quite become one yet…

It was about 6.00am on a drowsy Saturday. Harpo the Cat was cuddled up close to me, purring like a power drill. Robin was curled up close to me as well, and she too appeared to be purring. I've learned that Robin never snores. There is a subtle, though well defined, difference between purring and snoring. Robin is quite clear on this point and has explained it to me several times. With diagrams and gestures. And a rolling pin. I think I'm beginning to understand.

All ten kilos of Porgy were wrapped around my feet which were sinking deep into the mattress springs as a result. He too emitted an occasional purr. As a consequence of all this applied affection, I was wide awake and sweaty, but I didn't dare move. If the cats realised I was awake they would demand breakfast. I wasn't quite ready for that yet.

"Clatter, clatter," went the cat flap.

"Shriek!!!" yelled something that wasn't quite dead yet.

Robin, Harpo and Porgy all woke up, instantly alert.

"Sounds like Bess has brought breakfast home," said Robin.

We have a rule in the house. Robin is in charge of dead things and vomit. I'm in charge of everything else. Since it sounded like we might soon have a dead thing, she went to investigate. Harpo followed, full of curiosity.

"Shriek! Clatter, thud, shriek! Bang! Crash!"

"It's a bird," said Robin.

"So it is," said Harpo. "That looks as though it might be interesting. I wonder if it bounces? I wonder if it rattles?"

"Well done, Bess," said Robin soothingly, trying to make the best of the situation. Perhaps the cat could be placated enough to rescue the bird that was yelling its head off in her mouth.

"mmglfff", said Bess.

"Can I have a bit?" asked Harpo, starting to edge forward.

Bess opened her mouth a little, presumably to say no you can't, but before she could say anything at all, the bird slipped away from her and raced towards Harpo, yelling and shrieking at the top of its voice and scattering feathers in a fine black cloud.

"Oh, oh," said Harpo. "That looks a bit scary – I think I'd better run away."

He drilled one claw deep into Robin's naked foot and used it as a pivot to swing himself round a hundred and eighty degrees. All his other claws were out as well, and as he pivoted on the embedded claw they dug a neat semi-circle of flesh out of Robin's foot.

"Aaaaahhh, you little bugger," yelled Robin, grabbing hold of her wounded foot.

"SHRIEK!" yelled the bird.

"Bye, bye," said Harpo over his shoulder as he fled.

"Come back, you bastard", called Bess as she made a mighty leap towards the bird. She missed, and the bird took refuge behind Robin. For a moment, cat and bird played peek-a-boo through Robin's legs. Bess actually growled; a sound which is not normally part of her vocabulary.

"Get out of my way!" said Bess angrily, and she bit Robin firmly on the foot that Harpo hadn't shredded, in order to make her move aside. "Let me get at that bloody bird!"

"Aaaahhh!" yelled Robin one more time, grabbing hold of her other wounded foot. Both Robin's feet were now in mid-air as she tended to her injuries. With one foot in each hand, she was staying upright by sheer will power alone. She moved to the left a little. Bess shot through the gap so fast that the sonic boom stunned the bird into immobility.

"Ha! Got you!"

Bess picked the bird up and raced out of the cat flap into the garden.

There was a blessed silence, broken only by the splashing of blood from Robin's multiple cat-induced wounds. Black feathers swung gently down through the air and settled on the floor.

"Is it safe to come out yet?" asked Harpo, peering shyly round the door.

"Did something happen?" queried Porgy, who is definitely not the tastiest biscuit in the bowl. Events were taking place far too fast for him to keep up with them. He was still comfortably curled around my feet, pinning me immovably to the bed. "What have I missed? Is it breakfast time yet?"

Stuart Pawson's books are a bit hard to get hold of in New Zealand. His publisher (Allison and Busby) doesn't appear to have an outlet here. Also, many of his early works are now out of print. That's a shame, because the few that I have managed to track down have been uniformly brilliant.

On one level they are just detective novels. Indeed, in many ways they are very traditional detective novels. The only thing at all out of the ordinary is that generally the hero, Inspector Charlie Priest, has several cases on the go at once. Sometimes these prove to be connected, sometimes they don't. We also get the occasional chapter told from the villain's point of view, though we don't always know who the villain is when we read these chapters. An odd structure, but quite effective.

The attraction of these novels lies not so much in the tales themselves as in the manner of their telling. And, from my point of view at least, in their setting. You see, Stuart Pawson is a Yorkshireman and the events of his novels all take place in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which is where I was born and where I grew up. So I find a degree of geographical nostalgia in these books which will probably completely pass you by. However I also get a degree of geographical frustration which I guarantee you will never even notice!

Pawson sets his novels in the imaginary town of Heckley. It must be a fairly large town because there is a substantial police force based there. My first assumption, based upon the sound of the name, was that Heckley was really Heckmondwyke – but it can't be because the actual Heckmondwyke is mentioned in several of the books. Given that Heckley is quite close to the moors, and given that Charlie Priest often goes walking on the moors, I'm now inclining towards the feeling that Heckley is really a thinly disguised Ilkley (the place you go b'aat 'at). The fictional Oldfield just over the border in Lancashire is almost certainly Oldham. And so on. I'm really not sure why Pawson does this – after all he mentions real places quite frequently; so I can't see any reason at all for him to invent imaginary locales. One of the real places that crops up is Halifax (where I was born), and several important scenes in several of the books actually take place in Halifax. Great fun! But none of it will matter a damn to anybody who wasn't born in Yorkshire.

Despite the seriousness of many of the cases that Priest investigates (and there are some quite brutal and gruesome murders) there is also a lot of light hearted banter and repartee between the policemen themselves. Obviously this is one device for distancing yourself from the horror; for learning how to cope with it. And so you could say that this jokey dialogue adds verisimilitude to the stories.

But actually, that's not why it's there. It's really there so that Pawson can tell the most appalling and outrageous jokes. One of Charlie Priest's colleagues informs him that the latest craze among the youth of Heckley is to inject the drug Ecstasy directly into their mouths. Priest is absolutely horrified. Into their mouths?

"Yes. They call it E by gum."

You just have to love a writer who has the nerve to put a joke like that into a serious detective novel!

If you find any Stuart Pawson books, buy them immediately. I can guarantee that you'll enjoy them.

Curious Notions is the second novel in a young adult series that Harry Turtledove is writing for Tor. The basic scenario is that a device has been invented which allows people to travel between alternate timelines. The timeline that invented the gadget is using it to foster trade between the timelines (and they are doing very well for themselves, thank you very much). The people who staff the trading posts that have been established in the various alternates sometimes have their children with them and the children have adventures in the timelines. The adventures always follow the same kind of pattern. The fact that travel between the alternates is possible must be kept secret at all costs and therefore the traders are utterly forbidden from interfering in the local timeline in case the secret leaks out. For various reasons, the children ignore this rule and do interfere with local events. The whole operation is endangered. There are lots of crises but eventually it all gets sorted out.

The other common thread that runs through the stories is that the children are always obnoxious and/or stupid and/or unbelievably naïve. (The hero of Curious Notions is all three and he is distinctly unprepossessing).

Curious Notions is set in a timeline where Germany won the first world war. America has been under occupation for two generations. You can easily guess what the fiercely patriotic American teenager who helps with the trading store makes of that situation! As an added attraction, not only is the teenager himself obnoxious, stupid and naïve, so is his father! If the words "dysfunctional family" didn't exist, you'd have to invent them. It is very hard to have any sympathy for characters like that.

I find this series excruciating to read. And I suspect most young adults of my acquaintance would also hate it. It is preachy, hectoring and shrill and the characters are hateful.

Days of Infamy, on the other hand, is a Turtledove novel for adults and it is extremely good. The only drawback is that it is the first novel in yet another open ended series. Heaven knows how many books it will eventually encompass.

The basic scenario is that the Japanese, rather than just bombing Pearl Harbour, launch a full scale invasion instead and drive the Americans out of the Hawaiian islands. The story examines the implications of this on the conduct of the rest of the war. And the implications are quite profound, of course.

However Turtledove, in the best tradition of novel writing, shows rather than tells and therefore the events are seen through the eyes of many different people as they live, love, fight and die while history unfolds around them. There are viewpoint characters on both the Japanese and American sides. Some are common soldiers, sailors and pilots. Some are high ranking officers. Some are civilians. Some are men. Some are women. It is the same writing technique that Turtledove has used to such good effect in his other alternate history series. It worked brilliantly there and it works brilliantly here. And as always, he left me wanting more. I want to know what happens to these people – they have taken hold of my heart and I really do care about what the future will bring to them. But I'm going to have to be patient. I would imagine it will be at least a year before the next book appears. Damn!

Black Brillion is a new novel by Matt Hughes. Like his previous books, this one is set in a far future when the Old Earth is controlled by an Archon, and the people living in the Archonate (and the Archonate itself) are all brought to life with a manner and a style highly reminiscent of that of Jack Vance.

Luff Imbry is a swindler; a man who lives life to the full but lives it on the wrong side of the law. Barlo Harkless is a young and foolish agent of the Bureau of Security. Horselan Gebbling is a man who claims to have a cure for a debilitating, and eventually fatal, disease known as the lassitude. Black Brillion, a jewel that probably doesn’t exist, is a large part of the cure. The fortunes of all three entwine as they journey on a landship across an unnaturally flat prairie known as The Swept.

The style, the language, and the situations are all ineffably Vancian and what a pleasure it is to wallow in such wonderful prose. But truth to tell, Black Brillion is Hughes’ weakest book. It is quite badly structured: Luff Imbry starts off as a fascinating character who promises to have a profound effect on the events unfolding in the narrative. But he gets distracted and then is seen no more. This is a terrible anti-climax after the build up he received earlier in the book, and I missed him when he was gone. Barlo Harkless spends a lot of time exploring the noosphere, that metaphysical realm wherein the archetypes lurk. Events in the noosphere are profoundly important for the plot and yet the lengthy excursions that Barlo takes there are extremely tedious to read about. The noosphere feels grey and distant and the archetypes (probably because they ARE archetypes) have nothing of interest to say. Almost by definition an archetype is a cliché and the dwellers in the noosphere are no exception to that rule.

The book is a curate’s egg: the high spots are wonderful, the language sublime. But there are too many dull moments. The noosphere simply doesn’t work as a narrative device.

The next thing I learned this month is: never tell the truth to a computer.

It all started when my AA membership came up for renewal. For the princely sum of $78.35 I could renew my membership and Robin's membership for another year. What a reasonable fee – I was keen to proceed! All that remained was to sort out the practical details.

One mechanism for paying the fee required me to spend thirty seconds walking across the road to the AA office where I would have to stand in a queue for two minutes, after which I would wave a credit card at the nice lady behind the counter and sign a piece of paper. Total elapsed time, approximately four minutes. It all seemed far too onerous to contemplate. Feeling indolent, I determined to see if technology would solve my problem. Why leave my seat if I didn't have to?

A few clicks of my mouse brought me to the AA web site where, I was pleased to observe, I could fill in an electronic form and renew my membership online. That'll do me! I clicked and typed and typed and clicked. The only fly in the ointment was that I had to tell the computer my credit card number so that it could take $78.35 away from me. I'm always dubious about giving my credit card number to a web site, but the site assured me I had nothing to fear. It was a secure web site, safe from prying eyes. Surely I could trust it?

Convinced, I filled in my credit card number and expiry date and I clicked the submit button. There was a short pause while the web page verified my card details and then it thanked me very much and told me my AA membership was renewed for another year. Easy!

The total elapsed time was approximately four minutes; about the same length of time it would have taken had I done it in person at the AA office. But this method had the substantial advantage that I didn't have to endure thirty seconds of exercise as I walked across the road to the AA office, and I didn't have to suffer through a further debilitating thirty seconds as I walked back again. All in all I felt well pleased.

A few days later, I had occasion to do some internet banking, so I logged on to my bank account. My credit card details are also available at this same internet banking site and I glanced cursorily at the account balances as they displayed. Funny, I thought. Why is my Visa balance $391.75? I don't recall spending that amount of money on anything. Perhaps I ought to look at the details. I clicked on the link that displayed my credit card transactions.

Much to my bewilderment, I discovered that I had renewed my AA membership five times. There it was in front of my eyes. Five charges of $78.35, making a grand total of $391.75 which Visa was now insisting I pay them. Immediately. Or else!

Hmmm. That's not supposed to happen.

I printed out the transaction details and then spent thirty seconds walking across the road to the AA office where I stood in a queue for two minutes. Then I explained what had happened to the nice lady behind the desk and I showed her the printout of the credit card transactions.

"That's odd," she said. She called up my account on her computer. "It all looks normal here," she said. "It just shows that you have renewed for the next year. I can't see any extra charges. I'd better talk to my manager."

Her manager happened to be passing as she said this so she grabbed him and explained. Being a manager, he was far too exalted to deal with mere mortals like customers and so he completely ignored my existence. He wouldn't look me in the eye and he refused to answer me when I directed a question at him. He spoke only to the lady behind the desk, and he spoke very rudely, because he was a manager and she was an underling.

"Ring Paula Upstairs," he said. "It's her department. She'll know what to do." He bustled away to do important managerial things.

The lady rang Paula Upstairs and explained the problem. Paula Upstairs asked to speak directly to me.

"Did you notice anything odd when you renewed online?" she asked.

"No," I said. I explained what I'd done and what happened. "Everything was quite normal and I saw exactly what I expected to see."

"You didn't click the submit button five times, did you?" asked Paula Upstairs.

"No," I said. "I only clicked it once."

"Very peculiar," said Paula Upstairs. "I'll report it to our systems people and see if they can make anything of it. Meanwhile I'll put through a credit of $313.40 to your Visa account which will reverse four of the five transactions so you'll only have to pay Visa the $78.35 of your actual membership fee."

"Thank you very much," I said. "That should do nicely."

I returned to my office. Total elapsed time was approximately eight minutes, including one minute of exercise (thirty seconds each way). Plus the original four minutes I'd used on the web site. Twelve minutes in all. Perhaps I really should have renewed my membership the old fashioned way. It would have taken only a third of the time.

Truly it has been said that all the time you save by using a computer will need to be spent checking the computer to make sure it got everything right, and then fixing everything it got wrong.

Paula Upstairs was as good as her word. The credit came through straight away. Ten out of ten to the AA for sorting the mess out quickly, politely and efficiently as soon as the cock up was pointed out to them. Zero out of ten for letting it happen in the first place – if any of you renew your AA membership online this year, check your credit card statements very carefully. Who knows what you'll find…

The Stupidest Angel is a novel for Christmas by Christopher Moore. An angel has been sent from heaven to make the annual Christmas miracle happen. He's not the most musical note on the harp; indeed he's pretty damn dumb. But hey – it's only a miracle, and who needs brains anyway? Zombies, that's who. Zombies like to suck living brains out human skulls. Oh yes!

The angel catches a young lady in the act of murdering Santa with a shovel. Actually he's only dressed up as Santa and he is really her abusive husband and she has very good reasons for killing him. But this is all lost on the angel. He just sees Santa getting killed. Cool! Now he can do the Christmas miracle and bring Santa back to life! Unfortunately he over does it with the miracle shtick and not only does Santa come back to life, so do all the bodies in the local graveyard as well. Yeah! Zombies! Let's all go suck some brains out.

The little town of Pine Cove is about to have a Christmas it will never forget. And only Tucker Case and his fruit bat Roberto can save the day. If Roberto can find his sunglasses, of course.

I loved The Stupidest Angel. It is silly, sick, gruesome and absolutely hilarious. And it has graphic descriptions of people over forty having sex. Yuck!

Stable Strategies is a short story collection by Eileen Gunn. She is not a prolific writer and I suspect that that the stories in this (rather slim) collection represent pretty much everything she has written over the last umpteen years. She doesn't produce much, but what she does produce is always worth reading. The title story (it's full title is Stable Strategies For Middle Management) was nominated for a Hugo, and several other stories in the book are award winners or nominees. That's not bad for someone who writes one story every decade or so. My favourite was actually the last story in the book. It's called Green Fire and the four major characters are Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp and Grace Hopper. (If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, go and have words with your closest computer geek. She was a very eminent computer scientist. Among other things she invented the COBOL programming language). The story is set during the second world war at the Philadelphia Naval Yards. Asimov, Heinlein, de Camp and Hopper take part in a top secret experiment which has unexpected side effects. To say more would be a spoiler – but I do treasure the image of Isaac Asimov being towed across the surface of the sea on the back of a giant turtle.

Part of the attraction of the story is that Asimov, Heinlein and de Camp did actually work together on top secret research projects at the Philadelphia Naval Yards during World War Two. Everything else in the story is fiction (I hope!). But that soupcon of fact makes it irresistible to old time SF fans like me. Also large sections of the story are told in the voices of the "real" characters themselves. It's fun to hear Heinlein as he describes what they are doing. It's fun to hear Asimov bring a different point of view to it. It's a story that only an SF fan would cherish, but what's wrong with that?

This is a great collection.

Spider Robinson's new book, The Crazy Years, is a collection of essays. As with most things that Spider does, the title comes directly from Robert Heinlein. Heinlein wrote a series of stories that all fitted into a quite complicated "future history". In order to keep the details straight in his mind, he drew a chart of the future events and the years in which they occurred. Part of his future history was labelled The Crazy Years; they were years of wildness and anarchy, years when it sometimes seemed the world was falling apart. Spider claims that we are currently living in the crazy years and the essays in his book discuss the craziness that surrounds us.

I wasn't expecting much from the book, to be honest. Spider hero-worships Robert Heinlein to an almost embarrassing degree and I was expecting the essays to reflect Heinlein's world view. I expected Spider to be simply Heinlein in a skin. He's done that trick often enough in his novels, for goodness sake. And Heinlein's world view is not mine. Heinlein was intensely patriotic ("America – love it or leave it") and in times of crisis he would allow no dissent at all ("My country, right or wrong"). I'm not making this up – there are numerous well-documented occasions where Heinlein has defended these extreme positions. So I was expecting Spider's essays to be more of the same.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Again and again and again I found myself nodding agreement with the points that Spider was making. For example, despite the fact that he is himself an American (and is proud of being an American) he has nothing but contempt for America's actions following the terrorist attack on September 11th 2001. Heinlein would never have said that! ("My country, right or wrong". Remember?).

Over and over and over again Spider examines the sociology and the politics of contemporary society and finds them wanting. He makes very good points – perhaps these really are the crazy years after all. I'm convinced.

As a result of reading this book I have been forced to completely re-evaluate Spider Robinson. He's not the Heinlein clone I'd always thought him to be. There's a depth and an honesty to his thinking that I'd never suspected before. The Crazy Years is a valuable, and very insightful, collection of essays.

Normally I love novels by David Lodge. They are witty, wise and full of interesting ideas which can make you look at things in quite a new light. Over the years he has cast his magic spell over academia, the army, Roman Catholicism, the cinema, industrial relations, artificial intelligence and probably lots of other things as well. I was looking forward eagerly to Author, Author.

I wish I hadn't bothered.

Author, Author represents quite a departure for Lodge. It is nothing like any of his other books. It is just a thinly fictionalised biography of Henry James and his contemporaries (George Du Maurier et al). Goodness knows why Lodge has chosen to do this. Henry James wrote some of the dullest books in the world. He lived one of the dullest lives anyone has ever lived. His friends were all extremely boring! Absolutely nobody reads James today (except students of Eng. Lit. and they only read him because they have to). Du Maurier and the rest of them are all utterly forgotten.

This is not promising material for a novel. Perhaps not surprisingly, Author, Author is an excruciatingly dull book.

I learned one more thing this month. I learned that econometrics is pedagogic play therapy. But that's so trite and obvious, that I'm a bit ashamed to even mention it at all.

Stuart Pawson Limestone Cowboy Allison & Busby
Stuart Pawson Laughing Boy Allison & Busby
Stuart Pawson The Picasso Scam Allison & Busby
Stuart Pawson The Mushroom Man Allison & Busby
Stuart Pawson Over The Edge Allison & Busby
Harry Turtledove Curious Notions Tor
Harry Turtledove Days of Infamy NAL
Matthew Hughes Black Brillion Tor
Christopher Moore The Stupidest Angel Morrow
Eileen Gunn Stable Strategies Tachyon
Spider Robinson The Crazy Years Benbella
David Lodge Author, Author Secker & Warburg
Previous Contents Next