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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (electricus minimus)

Alan At The Charge

The other week I had occasion to visit Auckland. I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. I indulged myself with a glass of wine and a snack, and then an announcement rang through the lounge:

"Air New Zealand flight 475 to Auckland is now boarding through gate lounge 16."

We all went to the boarding gate. A nice lady confirmed the flight number on our boarding passes and we walked down the air bridge to the plane. The air bridge walls were painted black with large white words written on them exhorting the All Blacks Rugby Team to victory. The black walls made the air bridge feel very gloomy and claustrophobic.

Rather surprisingly, the plane at the end of the air bridge was painted bright yellow and it had the words "Freedom Air" written on the side of it. Where was the Air New Zealand flight to Auckland? A smiling lady welcomed us on board.

"This is the plane to Auckland, isn’t it?" asked the person in front of me, thereby removing from me the embarrassing necessity of asking the same question.

"Indeed it is," said the nice lady. "Don’t worry – we aren’t flying to Brisbane."

I was pleased to hear it. I’d left my passport at home.

When we were all comfortably seated, and as the plane taxied to the runway, the nice lady made an announcement.

"Welcome aboard Air New Zealand Flight 475 to Auckland. Yes – we are going to Auckland, but we are going in disguise! Won't that be fun?"

So we had a stealth flight in camouflage colours. It must have worked, because we landed precisely on time and my luggage appeared within a few seconds of my arrival at the conveyor belt. Both these events are absolutely unprecedented on real Air New Zealand flights. I wholeheartedly recommend disguised flights.

However because the flight had been so trouble free, I just knew that I was building up trouble for myself in the future. There’s always some sort of catastrophe lurking malevolently whenever I travel away from home. I began to dread the week ahead of me.

There are some very special books in the world; books that take you away from yourself and transport you to another place from which you do not want to return. When you read one of these special books, you start to resent the intrusions of reality. It begins to seem pale and thin by comparison. Mundane things like eating and sleeping just get in the way of the transcendental experience of reading that special book and you can't wait to return to it.

Child of a Rainless Year by Jane Lindskold is one of these very special books.

We first meet Mira as a small girl living in a tiny town in New Mexico. Her flamboyant mother Colette treats Mira quite coldly and she is often left to her own devices, looked after by the servants she thinks of as the silent women. When Mira is nine years old, Colette goes away on a trip and never returns. Mira is fostered out and moves away from New Mexico.

In her fifties, following the deaths of her foster parents, Mira starts to learn some odd things about her past. A condition of her adoption was that her foster parents change their names and move away from their home state. She still owns the house in New Mexico and she travels back there to start to try and make sense of the strange things she is discovering about her life. The house is much as she remembers it on the inside, but the outside is brightly painted in many colours. The caretaker insists that the house needs to be painted and Mira, who is an artist herself and who has always been in love with colour, agrees with him. Together they continue to bring the exterior of the house flamboyantly alive, and it flourishes under their loving care.

Meanwhile Mira tries to investigate her mother's mysterious life and even more mysterious disappearance. She starts to dig into her almost forgotten family history. The silent women come back to the house and Mira starts to glimpse things beyond the veil.

This is a fantasy novel and fantastic things are happening right from the very first page, though that does not become clear until much later on in the story. We are introduced so seductively to the world behind the world that we simply don't notice until suddenly it is all around us and even the most bizarre circumstances seem so natural that we simply accept them as a matter of course.

One of the things that makes this book such an absorbing read is its astonishing sense of place and character. The tiny town of Las Vegas (yes – it really exists) is drawn in all its brown and dusty glory. You can taste the grit as you breathe. And all the characters in the book, even the spear-carriers, step alive from the page and demand their moment of glory. Mira in particular is so real and so vivid that she becomes extremely easy to identify with. Her problems quickly become your problems, and you want them to be solved just as much as she does. The pages almost turn themselves. It becomes vital that you find out what happens next, and nothing must be allowed to get in the way of that.

Child of a Rainless Year is the most perfect piece of storytelling that I've ever read.

I read Robin McKinley's Sunshine on the recommendation of a friend. Normally I'd have avoided it because it's yet another "adolescent girl attacked by vampire" story. However this one was supposed to be better than most, and so I gave it a try.

It's actually quite good – it doesn't follow the usual semi-romantic clichés of the genre. The vampires in the story are truly nasty (though I have my suspicions about how the narrator's relationship with Constantine might develop if there are ever any sequels) and the plot is truly original and very gripping. The characters are well drawn and generally sympathetic although the viewpoint character and narrator is a remarkably stupid girl who would have had a much easier time of things if she hadn't been so dumb. She refuses to confide in people who can help her; and she refuses to trust the organisation that has been set up specifically to address the kind of mess that she finds herself in. Her reasons for this are far too emotional to be truly convincing. I found her very irritating. On balance though, I'd recommend the book. It's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

Waifs and Strays is a collection of stories by Charles de Lint. Only some of them are Newford stories, but all of them have the Newford feel. It's hard to be precise about this – de Lint's clever and stylish intermingling of reality and fantasy is very slippery and difficult to pin down. However he himself understands it perfectly and knows just how to apply it to his work. There isn't a dud story in this collection – every single one of them works beautifully.

The unifying theme of the collection is that the stories all involve teenage protagonists. And de Lint is also extremely good at getting inside the skin of young people, motivated perhaps more by idealism than pragmatism, and with a remnant of the childhood belief in magic still there somewhere deep inside. Perhaps he never grew up himself. Waifs and Strays is a wonderful book.

Quad World was Robert Metzger's first novel, and it's not particularly good. John Smith attends a routine staff meeting. However during the meeting, time seems to freeze and he thinks that he is dying. When time begins to pass again, he finds himself in a strange parallel universe where Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, Napoleon and Elvis are real people with real problems and a real war is going on. And, of course, the fate of the world rests with John.

The story strives a bit too much for effect and doesn't quite convince. It's all a little twee. There's a solid scientific idea underpinning it (Metzger can be characterised as hard SF writer), but it's all a little bit SF by numbers. Maybe I'm too jaded.

Normally I rather like Paul Di Filippo's books. But Fuzzy Dice simply didn't work for me. Paul Girard is visited by Hans, a dimension-hopping artificial intelligence. He gives Paul the ability to access to infinite worlds which conform to his most intimate desires. Paul indulges himself at the Big Bang, immerses himself in a world ruled by hippies, and engages in the video game that rules the world. He visits lots of worlds in a search for the Ontological Pickle (don't ask) and he makes a mess of all of them.

Di Filippo is exploring territory previously mapped out by writers like Robert Sheckley and John Sladek, and I think they did it better. So to that extent I found Fuzzy Dice a little derivative. Also the satire seemed a bit obvious and the wit was not very witty (though that might just be me). On balance, I found it a very self-indulgent book and I struggled to finish it.

My problems began when I plugged my mobile phone into its charger. Nothing happened. Not a volt, not even an amp made its way from the charger to the phone. Bugger! I plugged the charger into another socket. It didn’t work; all the electrons were on strike. I examined the charger closely. The end that plugged in to the phone only had one terminal on it. The other one had fallen off, never to be seen again.

Fortunately there is a mobile phone shop just up the road from our office. I went there the next day and explained my predicament to the lady behind the counter.

"Here’s my phone," I said. She took it and plugged it in to a charger that was lurking beneath a table. Electrons raced eagerly down the wire.

"Well, the phone’s OK," she said. "Have you got the charger itself?"

I showed her the charger and she scrutinized it with an intense scroot.

"There’s the problem," she said triumphantly. "One of the terminals has broken away."

"Have you got a new charger I could buy?" I asked.

"No – we don't have any in stock. But I'll ring round and see if anybody else does."

She spent the next twenty minutes or so on the phone to various branches throughout Auckland.

"Have you got an Ericsson charger?" she asked.

"No," they said, one and all.

"Nobody has one," she said. She dived into a desk drawer and produced a copy of the yellow pages. "I'll try our competitors now."

She rang her shop's largest business opponent.

"Have you got an Ericsson charger?"

"Yes we have."

Rather glumly, she asked them to reserve it for me.

"You'll have to go and pick it up yourself," she said. "Because they are the competition, I can't really get the charger delivered here for you."

She gave me the address. All I had to do was get to the Downtown Shopping Centre before 6.00pm which was when the shop closed…

Charles Stross' two books The Family Trade and The Hidden Family advertise themselves on the cover as Book 1 and Book 2 of The Merchant Princes. However Stross conceived them as a single book and submitted them to his publisher as a single manuscript. For some odd reason, Tor decided to publish them as two separate books and somewhat arbitrarily chopped the manuscript in half. Consequently the first novel is not complete in itself and has a rather unsatisfactory ending which might put you off. My recommendation would be to buy both books together and read them as a single story, just as the author intended them to be read. You'll enjoy it much more that way.

The book(s) represent quite a departure from Stross' normal style and subject matter. Usually he writes rather clever hard SF books based around Vernor Vinge's ideas of the singularity. I find the singularity a dubious philosophy at best and so I originally approached Stross with a determination not to like his books. I was wrong – he's actually a very good writer. However I suspect that he will be remembered far more for The Merchant Princes than he will for his singularity novels for he has come up with a truly original concept which, if it resembles anything at all in SF, resembles Zelazny's Amber stories. And when you are leading from strength like that, it's very hard to go wrong.

Miriam Beckstein is a reporter for a technical magazine. She comes across evidence of a money laundering scheme being carried out by some rather prominent organisations. It's the story of the year and she takes it to her editor, sure that he will fall on it with glad cries of glee. However, much to her surprise, she is immediately fired from her job and she starts to receive death threats from the criminals she has uncovered.

Miriam is an orphan. Her mother was murdered when she was a baby and she has been brought up by a foster mother. After she has been sacked from her job, she visits her foster mother who gives her a locket which had been left to her by her real mother. There's a curious interlacing pattern of knotwork around the locket which has an oddly hypnotic effect on her. Before she knows it, she has been transported to a parallel Earth where she is attacked by a knight in armour wielding an automatic rifle.

And in this reality her true family runs things.

Miriam's real mother was a refugee from a Clan feud and Miriam is a long lost cousin of the ruling Clan. There are six Clans (and a mysteriously vanished seventh, which is now largely forgotten about). Her family has a genetic ability to walk between the worlds and they have used this ability to become rich in both worlds by importing and exporting goods between them. And now Miriam is caught up in Machiavellian schemes as the Clans wheel and deal for power and riches.

The story is multi-layered and complex. There are plots within plots; and hidden as well as overt motives. The fate of both worlds is in her hands. Miriam has her work cut out for her. Naturally she wins through in the end, but it's a difficult battle and the situation is balanced on a knife edge. Stross has promised that there will be more stories in this universe. I can't wait.

The Merchant Princes is a tour-de-force. It is by far and away the best thing that Charles Stross has written to date.

Heart of Whiteness is a new collection from the eccentric Howard Waldrop. As with all Waldrop's work, the stories are extremely weird, stuffed full of obscure information about arcane subjects, and utterly enthralling. What a shame it is that most of Waldrop's stories only see the light of day in obscure small magazines and highly priced limited edition collections. (Only 750 copies of this book have been printed, damnit). His work really does deserve a much wider audience than it normally receives.

Verity Stob is the pseudonym of an English programmer who, for almost 20 years, has been writing articles about computers. The articles are witty, often laugh out loud hilarious and, at the same time, often deeply serious as well. The Best of Verity Stob is a brilliant collection of the best of her writing and it should be required reading for anyone who has ever been involved with the bizarre world of IT. You'll see computers (or the odd people sitting in front of them) in a completely new light. You will probably giggle in delighted recognition when you come upon a Verity Stob moment of your own. And most of us come across those moments on an almost daily basis.

Much as I like Diana Wynne Jones, I've never been much of a fan of her Chrestomanci stories. I'm not sure why, but in the past they've just rubbed me up the wrong way. However Conrad's Fate is a Chrestomanci story that is just wonderful (possibly because Chrestomanci himself barely appears in it).

Conrad lives in Stallchester where he works in his Uncle's bookshop. Looming above the town is Stallery Mansions, a source of much magical interference. Someone in Stallery Mansions is manipulating the probabilities and the reality changes this causes has some profound effects on the lives of the people of Stallchester.

Conrad is sent to Stallery Mansions as an apprentice footman. His task is to find and kill whoever it is in the place that is causing him so much trouble. But nobody seems to fit the bill!

Another person is also attempting to infiltrate Stallery Mansions. Christopher Chant is an apprentice of Chrestomanci and he is there to find Millie, a student who has vanished somewhere in the house. Christopher can sense her, but cannot find her and he finds this enormously frustrating.

The plot thickens as you turn every page. Motives are murky and hidden identities are constantly exposed. Nobody and nothing are as they seem on the surface.

And the whole complex story is carried off with Diana Wynne Jones usual delightful wit and humour.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is hard SF par excellence. One night, without any warning, the stars disappear. They are replaced by a flat empty black barrier and an artificial sun, which at least allows life to continue on the Earth. It soon becomes clear that the barrier is an artificial construct generated by huge alien artefacts in orbit above the poles. And time is passing much more swiftly outside the barrier than it does within it. One year on Earth is more than a hundred million years in the life of the universe outside the barrier. At this rate, the sun will die in less than forty years.

It's a huge concept and a lesser writer would (I suspect) have been so lost in the physics as to lose sight of the people who are affected by it. But Wilson is far too good a writer to fall into that trap. You can't have a story without people in it – and they have to be real people, not ciphers. Tyler Dupree was twelve years old when the stars disappeared and the events that shake the universe are observed through his eyes as he grows up in the shadow of the Big Blackout. Ordinary lives still continue.

And Wilson plays fair with us – the ultimate explanation for what has happened is a doozy! Spin is simon-pure SF and it doesn't get any better than this.

There's a new Falco novel by Lindsey Davis, the seventeenth in the series about a private investigator in Vespasian's Rome! One of the things that Davis likes to do with Falco is work off her frustrations with the modern world. In previous novels she has made pointed remarks about the inefficiencies of bureaucracies, about wheelers and dealers, about how builders never show up on time and always botch the job and use sub-standard materials. In See Delphi And Die she fulminates about how travel agents rip off the traveller. Greasy, untrustworthy individuals. Sometimes ancient Rome seems surprisingly modern. Human nature hasn't changed all that much. And that is where Davis finds her inspiration and applies her genius.

One of Auckland's more interesting features is the link bus. This bus travels on a circular route around the city. It has a fixed fare ($1.30) and passengers can get on or off at any of the stops along the way. At peak times, the link buses are scheduled to run every 10 minutes.

It is not always completely clear which point on its route any given bus has actually reached, or which direction it is travelling in, and it is not unheard of for people to spend more than an hour getting to a destination that is only five minutes from the stop at which they boarded the bus because they got on a bus going the wrong way. However once you have a degree of familiarity with the route, this problem generally disappears.

Recently, a high technology gismo has appeared at the link bus stops. It is an electronic display which tells the eager hordes of prospective passengers how many minutes they will have to wait before the bus actually arrives. The display is updated at one minute intervals and absolute accuracy is assured, because each bus is fitted with a GPS device so that its position is always known and its speed of travel may easily be calculated.

I went to the nearest link bus stop and examined the gismo. The next link bus was 4 minutes away. I leaned against the bus stop to wait. Soon the display updated itself and I was horrified to learn that my bus was now 12 minutes away. Since a bus was supposed to appear every 10 minutes, I found this less than reassuring. Glumly I watched the display count itself down at one minute intervals. Soon I had only 5 minutes to wait and I began to tingle with anticipation. But then the display shot up again to 15 minutes. My anticipation subsided. Obviously the driver kept getting his gears in a knot and the bus was travelling backwards. Either that, or it was trapped in Auckland's hideous rush hour traffic. I could be in for a long wait. I wondered if I would make it to the Downtown Shopping Centre before the shop closed.

Slowly the display counted down again. Eventually, after 15 agonising minutes, the display claimed that the bus was now due. No sooner had the magic word Due appeared on the board than the bus swung round the corner and screeched to a halt in front of me. I got on and paid my $1.30 and then I endured an excruciatingly slow journey into the city. Every traffic light was red, necessitating a long wait. Sometimes the queue at the lights was so immense that we actually had to wait through two or three cycles as we slowly inched our way forwards. I imagined link bus displays all through the city displaying ever-increasing wait times, to the despair of chilly commuters queuing impatiently in the cold winter evening.

I looked anxiously at my watch. Would I make it in time? It was getting ominously close to 6.00pm.

At long, long last, after what felt like geological ages, the bus stopped by the Downtown Shopping Centre and I alighted. It was 5.55pm. The shop would close in five minutes. I hastened towards the automatic doors of the shopping centre, but they refused to open for me and I banged right into them and bruised my nose. I stepped back and waved at the sensor. It glowed a sullen red and refused to take any notice of me. Then I noticed the opening and closing times for the shopping centre displayed on a helpful sign attached to the door. The shopping centre closed at 5.30pm.

But the people at the mobile phone shop had assured me that they were open until 6.00pm. What was going on? I got my phone out and turned it on with a small prayer to the Gods of Communication to allow me enough of a charge on the battery to make one phone call. The charge meter barely registered anything. Nervously I dialled the number of the shop.


"Hi. You have an Ericsson charger reserved for me. I'm outside the shopping centre, but I can't get in because the doors are locked."

"No problem," said the cheerful voice. "I'll open them for you."

With a star-trek like whoosh the doors opened and I walked in. As I crossed the threshold, my cell phone turned itself off with smug finality. The battery was now utterly flat.

The charger cost me $40. But it came complete with both its terminals and when I got back to the hotel and plugged it in, it worked perfectly.

Jane Lindskold Child of a Rainless Year Tor
Robin McKinley Sunshine Jove
Charles de Lint Waifs and Strays Firebird
Robert A. Metzger Quad World e.reads
Paul Di Filippo Fuzzy Dice ibooks
Charles Stross The Family Trade Tor
Charles Stross The Hidden Family Tor
Howard Waldrop Heart Of Whiteness Subterranean Press
Verity Stob The Best Of Verity Stob Apress
Diana Wynne Jones Conrad's Fate Harper Collins
Robert Charles Wilson Spin Tor
Lindsey Davis See Delphi and Die Century
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