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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (ping pong)

Ding Dong! King Kong!

Although I claim not to like the visual media very much, I do sometimes watch things on the haunted fish tank in the corner of the room. Indeed, on occasion, I even venture forth into the air conditioned luxury of the cinema and watch things on the big screen. Over the Christmas period I sat in the comfy leather seats at the Embassy Theatre and soaked up the spectacle of the big gorilla. I was completely enthralled and also slightly scared, although not for the usual reasons.

King Kong is Peter Jackson's homage to one of the icons of the Western cinema. Jackson has, of course, made a superb job of it. That almost goes without saying. Doubtless by this time you have all read umpteen reviews of the movie and most of you have probably been to see it and doubtless you have formed your own opinions about it as well. So I'm not going to write yet another review – that would be silly. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the movie immensely, and let's move on from there.

There were some aspects of the movie that made me feel uncomfortable. It highlights certain disturbing social attitudes and it gives at least an implicit approval to some rather dangerous ideas. It is those ideas and attitudes that I'd like to examine a bit more closely.

Jackson decided not to update the original movie at all and so what we see on our screens is a faithful re-creation of the world as the makers of the original movie saw it in the 1930s, warts and all. At the beginning of the film we meet Carl Denham, an ambitious movie producer who is wheeling and dealing in an attempt to obtain more funding for his projects. It very quickly becomes obvious that Denham is utterly selfish, unscrupulous and amoral. He is concerned only with his own well being and is prepared to ride roughshod over anyone or anything who stands in his way. He is a manipulative scoundrel with no redeeming features whatsoever. Nevertheless he manages to persuade a lot of people to do his bidding by a combination of blackmail, emotional manipulation and ruthless action. By the time his helpless victims realise that that they must go along with his mad schemes it it usually too late. Carl has removed all other choices from them.

Once they reach Skull Island, he goes from bad to worse. He cares not a jot nor a tittle for the plight of the islanders (well, they're black, aren't they?). He doesn't even care about the hideous deaths suffered by his own people. He has dollar signs in his eyes and all he can see are opportunities to exploit. Kong is just Carl Denham's key to fame, fortune and glory and he isn't going to let anyone stand in his way. Particularly not some stupid, screaming female.

The movie plays on Kong's relationship with Ann Darrow and much is made of the emotional attachment between the two – indeed it is one of the major points of the movie and the somewhat soppy last line ("It was beauty killed the beast.") has a certain ironic truth and grandeur to it; but Carl doesn't give a shit about that, of course. He hasn't even noticed it, being too wrapped up in his own selfish interests.

Another line, spoken by a spear carrier just after Kong has died is much more telling, though. In response to someone wondering what Kong felt about the whole experience with Ann and with Carl's own exploitation of him, a journalist remarks (I paraphrase here), "He was only a dumb animal, he didn't know or feel anything."

We, the audience, know that this simply isn't true. And any of us with any empathy at all who have been involved with real live animals are certain that they do know and understand things; they do feel emotions and they recognise and have attachments to individuals. And yet Carl, the journalist, and indeed almost everybody involved with Kong, simply refuse to recognize that. Consider all the rich and famous people in the theatre when Kong is unveiled for the first time. They are there simply for the spectacle of the raree show and I saw no evidence that anybody in that audience had any thought to spare for Kong's emotions and feelings. No one had any pity for that glorious creature brought so low. And nobody involved in the show seemed to think this was strange or in any way unacceptable. That's what I meant by the disturbing social attitudes and dangerous ideas that I mentioned at the start. It worries me that there are people who see the world as consisting merely of things to be used for self-aggrandizement. If we don't have empathy, if we don't have an appreciation that other attitudes and feelings exist outside of our own, how can we possibly claim to be civilised?

I suspect, from histories I have read, that such attitudes were quite overt and not uncommon in the 1930s. There was (and still is) a sneaking admiration for the man who fights his way to the top, and there's often an acceptance that the only way to overcome the competition is to be completely ruthless. To that extent, Carl was only doing what he felt society expected of him.

Such an attitude means that, almost by definition, potential gold mines like Kong are there simply to be used as we see fit. After all, as the journalist said, they have no feelings, they are only animals, they are not human beings.

Rather like <insert your favourite despised ethnic group here>, really.

And that's where it really sticks in my craw. If we can't even recognise other human beings as people, what chance do the animals have? And extrapolating forward a few years, what chance do the alien societies have, should we ever come across them out there among the stars? Are we going to try to ride roughshod over them as well? Are we really that wrapped up in our own concerns to the exclusion of all else? Are we that amoral and wrapped up in our self-importance?

The movie tells us, quite explicitly, that inferior beings are there simply to be exploited or exterminated, whichever makes more money for us. And it tells us that everyone and everything that isn't just like us is by definition an inferior being. The movie tells us that the world of the 1930s admired and rewarded such behaviour and such views and considered them to be quite natural. And there is a strong implication that nothing has changed in the years since then.

Just look around you. The evidence shows that the twenty-first century is not all that different from the twentieth. If someone sailed to Skull Island today I'm sure that they would do just what Carl Denham did. Perhaps they'd be a little less blatant about it, but they'd still make money out of Kong and eventually they'd kill him.

Human nature hasn't changed and sometimes it makes me despair. The attitude exemplified in the film is why the Japanese still hunt whales; it's why the Americans still have the most appalling human rights record in the Western world, and it's why most of the Eastern countries treat their women like sub-humans. Kong himself is simply a metaphor for all of these excessive obscenities.

In our arrogance, we think of ourselves as lords of all we survey. Money, fame, fortune and possibly food are the only things we value. The world is there for our benefit and we're the ones in charge. And because we're the ones at the very top of the heap it's our right to rape the resources while we can, and to impose our own rules.

King Kong holds a mirror up to our eyes and we see ourselves reflected in it. That's why the story, silly though it is, is so powerful and so moving. It's a story for all times and all places and all people; a story which just happens to have been told about 1930s America in two magnificent films. But that's an irrelevance in terms of the larger picture. The story is timeless – it will work in any time and any place. We're talking archetypes here, and something deep inside each one of us recognises it at a visceral level. The movie works so well because it talks a universal language. That's why it is so damn scary.

At this point in my thinking, I needed some cheering up. Definitely time to read some books.

Shortly before Robert Sheckley died, I ordered two handsome, hardback books of his from NESFA Press. My Sheckley short story collections and novels are all ancient paperbacks, many dating from the 1950s when he was at his most prolific, and they are becoming quite fragile (they were never very robust). I had an urge to re-read my favourites. Replacement copies were required.

The Mask Of Manana is a short story collection and Dimensions Of Sheckley is a collection of his novels. Both are wonderful books. Sheckley had the same jaundiced, and cynical outlook as Douglas Adams and both authors were well aware of the humour lurking just beneath the surface of the world. Stylistically and thematically they were very similar writers. Adams always denied that Sheckley had any influence on his writings and that's probably true given that Sheckley's stuff was largely out of print and virtually unobtainable when Adams was writing. But the similarities are very real and there is absolutely no doubt that if you like either one of them, you are guaranteed to like the other one as well.

I read The Mask Of Manana first. All my old favourites were there – Seventh Victim, A Ticket to Tranai, and The Accountant, a mad little story about young wizard who disappoints his family with his unswerving desire to be an accountant, rather than following his father into the boring family business of wizardry. I was also pleasantly surprised to find a few new stories as well. It would seem that Sheckley was so prolific in the early days of his career that some things simply fell through the cracks and never appeared in any of his collections. For example, the introduction proudly states that the book contains all the AAA Ace Decontamination Agency stories. Oh good, I thought. I like those. I vividly remember the shaggy dog story that is The Laxian Key and the hilarious illogic of Ghost V. But there were three AAA Ace stories in the collection that I'd never read before. Fantastic!

The novels are a mixed bunch. Sheckley did his best work at shorter lengths. Immortality Inc. is a fairly straightforward tale of a twentieth century man revived in the far future. Journey Beyond Tomorrow (aka The Journey Of Joenes) is as unreadable today as it was when I first stumbled over it in the 1960s. I've never been able to get beyond the first couple of chapters before my eyes glaze over, so I don't feel qualified to comment on it.

But Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles are just sublime.

In Mindswap, Marvin Flynn swaps his mind with a Martian. However it turns out that the Martian had obtained his body illegally and the real owner of the body is not pleased. Marvin is evicted from the Martian body, but he can't go back to his own body because it has vanished. So he has to hire himself out as an itinerant worker and spends the bulk of the book inhabiting some very odd bodies indeed. He hunts Ganzer eggs. He has a bomb placed in his nose. He learns the Theory of Searches and shortly after suffering metaphoric deformation, he enters the Twisted Worlds. Here effect precedes cause, black is white. The sky is green and the oak trees migrate south every winter.

Dimension Of Miracles is a perfect novel. Carmody wins a prize (or, more accurately, a Prize) in the galactic sweepstake and has to go to Galactic Centre to claim it. One of the highlights of his trip is his meeting with Maudsley, a builder of planets. Maudsley remembers building the Earth – he had to cut a lot of corners; he used second hand valves, the bearded guy who ordered it was a cheapskate who wouldn't pay for a quality product and Maudsley had to do some quick philosophical sleight of hand to get him to accept delivery. Carmody also encounters Bellwether, the sentient city who mothers him unmercifully ("Don't fall asleep in that chair. You'll get a crick in your neck!"). He passes through a world where intellectual conversation consists of advertising slogans and a world inhabited only by the personas of Hollywood actors.

The final story in the collection is The Minotaur Maze a novella that dates from 1990, which was quite late in Sheckley's career. Its an odd amalgam of surrealism and mythology and seemed to me rather like a dress rehearsal for his 1999 novel Godshome (which isn't included in this collection).

Sheckley was a wonderful writer. Brian Aldiss described him as "Voltaire with soda" and that seems to me to be a perfect summation. I was sorry to hear of his death. But he couldn't have a better memorial than these two handsome NESFA collections of his very best writing.

Mike Resnick writes rollicking good yarns and I love his stuff. Dragon America is an alternate history novel with a difference. Many alternate history stories start with the premise that the outcome of some famous battle or war is different from the way it turned out in our world (Germany wins the second world war, the South wins the American Civil War, whatever). Resnick takes a different approach. The results are the same but the weapons are different. What if George Washington fought the British with fire breathing dragons?

Resnick posits an America that has always been geographically isolated. There was never a land bridge connecting Alaska with Russia and there was never a Yucatan peninsula connecting North and South America. Perhaps the book is an alternate geography novel rather than an alternate history novel. Because of America's geographical isolation, evolution has proceeded quite differently and dragons do indeed exist in the fastnesses of the West. As the story opens, Daniel Boone is on a quest to try and recruit Indian forces into Washington's army. He fails in this, but learns of the existence of the fire breathing dragons which might help turn the tide of battle. All he has to do is tame them, train them and get them to the battle before the British forces overwhelm Washington's raggle taggle army.

Simple really.

This could well be the start of a series. It ends with Washington triumphant, the British defeated and the dragons a permanent fixture in the American armed forces. There are obviously many more stories to tell. And I for one am really looking forward to them.

Starship: Mutiny is definitely the start of a series. Emblazoned on the cover in large friendly letters are the words: Book One.

Three thousand years in the future, the Republic finds itself in an all out war against the Teroni Federation, an alien alliance that resents the growing military and economic power of the human dominated Republic. The main battles are taking place in the galactic core, but out on the rim, the border is guarded by the obsolete battleship Theodore Roosevelt. Its crew is largely made up of retreads, discipline cases and a few raw recruits. Wilson Cole has been posted to the ship. He comes with a reputation for heroics and disobedience. Twice he has deliberately disobeyed orders. Twice he has pulled the Republic's fat out of the fire. But the military bureaucracy hates him and even though he is a famous hero whose deeds are reported all over the galaxy, he has been banished to an obscure ship guarding an obscure outpost.

You can probably write the rest of the cliché yourself.

However that doesn't make it a bad book. One of Resnick's strengths is his ability to write a book that consists of nothing but clichés and make you enjoy it despite yourself. Like I said at the beginning, he writes rollicking good yarns and this one is one of the rollickingest (sic) that I've ever read. Well done that man!

A Gathering Of Widowmakers is the fourth book in Resnick's Widowmaker series, but don't worry – you don't have to have read the earlier books in order to understand and enjoy it. The Widowmaker is the most feared bounty hunter in the galaxy. He has brought in or killed more criminals than anyone else in history. But that was a long time ago. These days he is an old man who simply want to grow roses and look at the birds. There are two widowmaker clones carrying on his good work (though one of them is largely retired and the other is very young). The two clones come into conflict with each other and the original widowmaker has to come out of retirement to resolve the situation. Just when they think the problems have been solved, a new crisis arises and all three widowmakers must work together in order to solve it.

The widowmaker books are simply traditional stories of the American West on a grand galactic scale. Good guys versus bad guys (white hats versus black hats). They are J. T. Edson stories in space. They are every crap Hollywood cowie that you ever saw. They are wonderful fun because they are Mike Resnick stories and he doesn't know how to write dull books.

In 1981, Michael Moorcock published Byzantium Endures, the first book of what was announced as a quartet. Now, twenty five years later, the final volume The Vengeance Of Rome has been published and the quartet is complete.

They are not easy books to read. Pyat, the viewpoint character was a minor player in Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories. He's a thoroughly unpleasant man, an anti-semite, and a fascist. He's also a very unreliable narrator.

The frame around the Pyat sequence is that Moorcock befriends Pyat towards the end of his life, and after Pyat's death Moorcock inherits Pyat's papers and diaries. These, together with Moorcock's recollections, recordings and notes of their many conversations, form the basis of the novels. Moorcock presents Pyat's story without editorial interpolation even though (as he explicitly states) he finds much of what Pyat says and does to be quite repugnant and the effort of putting Pyat's often incoherent ramblings into some sort of sensible order has been very hard work. Maybe that's why it has taken him quarter of a century to complete the project.

Pyat was born on January 1st 1900. His tale is the tale of the twentieth century. He was there for the communist revolution in Russia and he fought for the Whites in the years that followed that revolution. He was a natural fascist and soon found a home with the European dictators of the 1930s. Pyat is bisexual, a cocaine addict, an engineer and a spy. He hero-worships Mussolini and is appointed to an influential position in the dictator's government. He is sent on a diplomatic mission to Germany and becomes intimate with Ernst Rohm, the homosexual leader of the SA. Pyat plays a crucial role in Hitler's rise to power. However when Rohm falls from favour, so does Pyat. He becomes a victim of the night of the long knives and he ends up in Dachau. Somehow he manages to survive even this and he persuades the Nazi hierarchy to let him use his engineering skills to build a secret weapon that can be tested in the civil war raging in Spain. After many adventures he is re-united with Mrs Cornelius, Jerry's mum, his first great love. London becomes his latest and his last home, and after the war he meets a journalist called Michael Moorcock.

It has been almost thirteen years since the third volume of the quartet was published. Moorcock has said on several occasions that the darkness of the last volume has been a terrible struggle to come to grips with, and that is the real explanation for his long delay in completing the project. The book deals in detail with some of the blackest nightmares of European history and no punches are pulled. Moorcock plays all his usual light-hearted literary games – Jerry Cornelius, Bishop Beesley, Miss Brunner and Shakey Mo Collier all have cameo roles; though sadly Una Persson seems to be otherwise engaged. But despite all this he can't avoid the darkness at the heart of it all. And to be fair, he doesn't even try. This is a truly harrowing book and the series as a whole is just magnificent.

It's Superman! is simply a novel about the young Clark Kent growing up in Smallville during the great depression. Eventually, of course, he becomes a super hero. The book takes no liberties with the story we all know and love, and all the familiar characters are there – Lois Lane, Lex Luthor – however we see very little of the action from Clark's point of view. Mostly we see Clark through the eyes of the other characters. There's a lot of incidental humour as well. The rationale behind the design of Superman's costume is a hoot. All in all, it's a very successful and enjoyable view of Superman's early years.

The best way to describe Jack McDevitt's two new novels is to say that they are rather like the Antiques Roadshow with spaceships; or perhaps Lovejoy with aliens. (Cash In The Attic with ray guns? Perhaps I really do watch too much television).

Alex Benedict is a dealer in antiquities. Over the years he has made several discoveries that have netted him a fortune, but the itch to discover new things never goes away.

Polaris is set sixty years after a mysterious disaster. The spaceship Polaris, with a crew of experts on board, had gone to view one of the most dramatic events ever seen in the universe – a black hole was passing through a solar system and the Polaris was there to record the stellar destruction. After the event, the captain broadcast a signal saying that the ship was returning. That was the last thing ever heard from the Polaris. A rescue ship sent to investigate found the Polaris deserted, the ship just floating in space. Where had everybody gone?

To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the event, a special ceremony has been organised. Alex is there and he acquires some artefacts from the ship which he knows will command a high price. The ceremony is brought to a tragic halt when an explosion rips through the halls, destroying almost every last remaining trace of the artefacts recovered from the Polaris. Somebody, it seems, doesn't want the mystery to be investigated.

In Seeker, Alex is hot on the trail of a lost colony. Nine thousand years ago, at the dawn of the space age, two starships, the Seeker and the Bremmerhaven set out from Earth to establish a colony on a remote world they called Margolia. Nothing was ever heard from them again and Margolia vanished into legend. Alex comes into possession of a drinking cup that has come from the Seeker. Could someone have rediscovered the lost colony?

Seeker is by far and away the best of the two books. It held me enthralled. It exhibits a genuine sense of wonder at the fantastic nature of the universe we inhabit – and the sheer effrontery of the ending is quite breathtaking in its imaginative brilliance. You will never believe what Alex finds as he tracks down the lost colony, and just when you think it is all over and the final fate of the colony is known, McDevitt ramps up the tension one more notch and presents us with perhaps the craziest astrophysical phenomenon ever described. And yet he makes it all completely believable, once you get over the shock of the situation he has had the enormous cheek to set up. This is hard science fiction at its very, very best.

Polaris is somewhat plodding and pedestrian in comparison. It isn't really a science fiction novel at all; it's a traditional locked room mystery with science fictional trappings. It's just the Marie Celeste in space. It's competently done but it never catches fire. Seeker, by contrast, is on fire from page one and by the end it's a raging inferno.

Jack McDevitt is a curate's egg of an author. Some of his books are absolutely addictive page turners, others are very ordinary. You can never tell which will be which from the blurbs. Here we have one of each. Perhaps that's par for the course.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter is yet another novel about a loveable serial killer. The gimmick is that this serial killer only kills other serial killers. Oh, I almost forgot – he also works for the police as a forensic specialist which makes him very good at hiding his tracks.

Lindsay has set himself a difficult task. The novel is told in the first person by Dexter the serial killer himself. Somehow Lindsay has to make Dexter sympathetic, somehow he has to make it easy for the reader to identify with a maniac. Don't ask me how he manages to pull it off, but he does. Dexter is a psychopath and sociopath, with no redeeming features (except that he kills serial killers, of course) and yet right from the start we are on his side. That's very clever writing.

You might want to take a shower after reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter.

Colin Bateman is a new writer to me, though judging by the length of the list of his previous novels in the front of Murphy's Law he's been around for quite some time. Murphy's Law and Murphy's Revenge are two novels about an undercover cop called Murphy. In Murphy's Law he has to infiltrate a gang of diamond thieves who all work for a funeral parlour, and in Murphy's Revenge he has to infiltrate a self-help support group for victims of violence. The group seems to be turning vigilante; a lot of the perpetrators of the crimes against the members of the group have themselves been killed.

Bateman's books seem to be characterised by graphic violence and pithy, witty, hilarious dialogue. The violence is often sickening in its detail, but somehow you are laughing so much at the incidental twiddly bits that you don't really notice the gore and the guts. It's an odd juxtaposition, but one that Bateman seems quite practised at for he never puts a foot wrong. The stories are ugly but the manner of their telling is sublime. I'm definitely going to have to keep an eye open for more of his books.

Robert Sheckley The Masque Of Manana NESFA Press
Robert Sheckley Dimensions Of Sheckley NESFA Press
Mike Resnick Dragon America Phobos Impact
Mike Resnick Starship: Mutiny Pyr
Mike Resnick A Gathering Of Widowmakers Meisha Merlin
Michael Moorcock The Vengeance Of Rome Jonathan Cape
Tom De Haven It's Superman! Chronicle Books
Jack McDevitt Polaris Ace
Jack McDevitt Seeker Ace
Jeff Lindsay Darkly Dreaming Dexter Orion
Colin Bateman Murphy's Law Headline
Colin Bateman Murphy's Revenge Headline
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