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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (gustator erucae)

Alan Has An Adventure

"Let's go for an adventure," said Ross.

"What a good idea," I said. It was Thursday and neither of us was working that day. The thought of all our friends slaving away over a hot desk at their 9-5 labour made the idea of an adventure irresistible. They'd all be so jealous. So we got into Ross's car and drove off to the Wairarapa, an area that is largely terra incognita to me, though not to Ross.

It soon became abundantly clear to me that New Zealand road engineers have learned nothing whatsoever from the Romans. Roman roads start at point A and go straight to point B. The operative word here is straight. The Romans simply moved any lumps of inconvenient geography out of the way. New Zealand road engineers have a different approach. It would seem that they are paid by the corner, and the road to the Wairarapa must have made very rich men of all of them. It has almost no straight parts on it at all as it winds its way up the mountains and encircles every rocky outcrop.

"Bendy bits for the next 3 kilometres" announced a road sign, and it wasn't lying. Three kilometres later, another road sign said: "More bendy bits for another 3 kilometres. Ha, ha, fooled you!"

The road is only a two lane highway. Woe betide you if you get stuck behind an overburdened and very slow logging truck. Overtaking is hard. There are occasional passing lanes, but they are very, very short; cunningly designed to disappear from beneath your tyres when you are less than half way past the lumbering leviathan. You stare helplessly at the oncoming traffic (which has no intention whatsoever of slowing down so as to allow you time to get safely back into your own lane). Massive acceleration and tight sphincters are an advantage here. Fortunately Ross has a very powerful car, and both he and I were wearing brown trousers.

Once we reached the top, we stopped at the café for a look at the view. It is truly spectacular. You feel as though you are perched on the roof of the world, and the lands spread themselves out all around you, green and welcoming.

We got back into the car and began to wend and wind our merry way down towards the vineyards of Martinborough.

In the 1960s, Chad Oliver was an up and coming SF writer. Many of his stories were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a journal which even then had a reputation for publishing stories of merit. Not for them the thud and blunder of traditional pulp SF. The magazine tended towards more thoughtful, some might even say cerebral, stories. Chad Oliver fitted in perfectly and his reputation grew. However he fell silent in the 1970s and by the time he died in 1993 he was largely forgotten by the fans; his novels and stories were all out of print and almost unobtainable.

But now, NESFA Press have published two handsome hardback collections of his stories. It has been a joy and a delight to re-read these stories – actually, I was reading the majority of them for the first time; some of them were originally published in some very obscure places.

Oliver's reputation was based around what was then a very odd approach to the writing of SF. By profession he was an anthropologist and almost all the SF that he wrote had an anthropological (or sociological) point to make. This was, of course, complete anathema to the "wiring diagram with dialogue" school of technophilic SF. I remember that there was much debate at the time these stories were first published. Was anthropology a science? Did Chad Oliver's stories qualify as science fiction, or were they something entirely different? Like most such debates it was essentially sterile. Of course his stories were science fiction. They had aliens in them. What more do you want?

It was just that these aliens weren't the comfortable, green, bug-eyed monsters that we all knew and despised. They had a depth and a dimension that the SF fans of the time weren't used to seeing. These aliens had reasons for being part of a ravening horde (if indeed ravening was what they did; often it wasn't). It was all very uncomfortable and more than a little quirky.

Nowadays, of course, we wouldn't turn a hair. Chad Oliver's approach to the writing of SF is now considered to be almost de rigueur. But Chad Oliver was the pathfinder; he showed us the way. These two collections are a definitive part of the history of the genre.

And they're a lot of fun to read.

I really don't know why I keep buying Vernor Vinge's books. I can't remember the last time I managed to finish one. I just bounce off his awful, lumpy-bumpy prose, his terribly American ethnocentricity, and his half-baked, inadequately explained ideas, and so I put the book down, never to be picked up again. Rainbows End is no exception. The title is the first annoyance. Where's the bloody apostrophe gone, eh? Answer me that! You can't, can you?

Once I'd got over that irritation, I settled down to read. The book actually has a lot of promise; I suspect that's why I bought it in the first place. The plot outline sounds very promising and I guess I was hoping that for once Vinge might not have bitten off more than he could chew. I was wrong of course; he didn't even begin to appreciate just what it was he had hold of, and it all turns very quickly into drivel and mush.

Anyway: Robert Gu was a world-renowned poet until Alzheimer's struck him down in his prime. But Gu was a very lucky man. Before the disease was too advanced, a cure was discovered. However during the years of his decline, the world has changed dramatically. It barely resembles the world that he remembers, and because he did not live through the changes, because he didn't get the chance to absorb them as they happened, he is suffering from an extreme case of culture shock. He is a child of the new world. He needs re-educating.

It is an age of information. The virtual world is almost indistinguishable from the real world. People live in both simultaneously. Layers of reality are built on digital views that may be solitary or that may be shared with millions. And the consensus reality of the digital worlds is literally woven into the wireless network access points in your clothes and viewed through your smart contact lenses.

Robert Gu begins his re-training at Fairmont High, learning along with other older people how to live with the reality that is simply second nature to the children who have grown up surrounded by it. And unwittingly he becomes part of a wide-ranging technological conspiracy of world domination.

This could be a good book, it could even be a great one. Unfortunately, it isn't either.

Christopher Moore, on the other hand, never fails to delight and A Dirty Job is unfailingly funny. Charlie Asher is a pretty normal sort of a person. He's a Beta Male, the kind who makes his way through life by being careful and constant. He's always there to pick up the pieces when the girl gets dumped by the bigger, stronger, taller Alpha Male. Sometimes Beta Males get laid a lot…

Charlie owns a second hand store in San Francisco. He has a couple of marginally insane employees and he's married to a bright, pretty woman who loves him deeply. As the story opens, his first child is about to be born.

And that's when it all goes pear shaped. Just as Charlie is leaving the hospital after the birth of his daughter Sophie, he sees a man dressed in a mint-green suit standing at his wife's bedside. The man claims that nobody can see him and he is very surprised to find that Charlie can see him. He's a Death, and he's come to collect the soul of Charlie's wife.

After his wife dies, things get weird for Charlie. People drop dead all around him and he is pursued by giant ravens that only he can see. Dark presences whisper threats to him from the sewer gratings in the street. Names and dates appear on the notepad on his nightstand.

Charlie receives a book of instructions through the mail. It's title is The Great Big Book Of Death. Charlie learns that he must collect the souls of the people whose names are written in his notepad before the use-by date. He too is now a Death. It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.

Anybody who thinks that Terry Pratchett had the last word to say about Death is utterly wrong. Christopher Moore's book is sad, sick and achingly funny.

"There's a brewery somewhere in Martinborough," said Ross. "It might be worth stopping there and picking up a few bottles. It's a very hard beer to find outside Martinborough itself."

"That sounds like a good idea," I said.

"It's on New York Street," said Ross. "Oh look – by a strange coincidence, here is New York Street!"

We stopped at the cross roads. New York Street stretched both left and right of us. There was no immediately obvious brewery to be seen.

"Hmmm," said Ross. "Let's try right."

We went right. There being no intervening geography now that we were out of the mountains, the road stretched infinitely straight and Roman-like in front of us. We drove and drove and drove some more. Lots of vineyards, no breweries.

"Odd," said Ross. "Perhaps we should have gone left. Never mind. If we turn here, here and here we'll go round in a circle and we can try again."

About half an hour later, after passing several hundred vineyards, we arrived back at the crossroads again. This time we turned left.

"There's the brewery," said Ross triumphantly, and he turned into the suspiciously empty parking area. "I think it's closed."

"There's a sign in the doorway," I said. "I'll hop out and have a look."

The brewery was open to the public on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoons only. Today being Thursday, it would seem that beer was out of the question.

I carried this sad news back to Ross. Fortunately he is not the kind of person who shoots the messenger. "Looks like it's wine, then," he said phlegmatically and drove off down New York Street once again. "Here's a nice sounding road," he said and turned left into Princess Street. Left had been a good direction all day, so I was cautiously optimistic.

We chose a vineyard by the pragmatic method. That is to say Martinborough Vineyards was literally opening its gates to visitors just as we drove past them. So we screeched to a halt, and then drove in.

The wine tasting room had large lists of wines for sale with the depressing words Sold Out against most of them. We were right at the end of the season (or, for those who see the glass as half full rather than half empty, right at the beginning of the current season, and the wine hadn't been made yet).

There were two Pinot Noir wines on offer. One was cheap and one wasn't.

"They're both from the same grapes," said the lady, "and both the same vintage. But they come from different barrels and they have quite a different taste as a result."

She was right – the wines were obviously closely related, but easily distinguishable by taste. She pointed at the one that wasn't cheap.

"That will be wonderful in about ten years time, and absolutely brilliant in fifteen, though it is quite acceptable now."

She pointed at the cheap one.

"That's a good quaffing wine and it's probably at its best now. It isn't really suitable for keeping and is unlikely to improve."

Being a man who requires instant gratification, I bought two bottles of the cheap one. If it turns your teeth pink and makes you fall over, it’s a good wine in my book. I'm a philistine.

Ross bought two bottles of a dessert sticky. He didn't taste it because he'd had it before and so he knew just what he was buying. I had a taste, and it was like drinking liquid gold; sweet, fulfilling and head-blasting. I was sorely tempted to follow his example and buy some of my own, but I had no money left.

Have you ever heard of a science fiction writer called Stuart MacBride? Neither have I, so you're not alone. In the acknowledgements section of his novel Cold Granite he thanks his agent who, it seems, advised him to: "…stop writing all that SF rubbish and try a serial killer novel instead."

Cold Granite and Dying Light are both serial killer novels so it seems that he has taken his agent's advice to heart. Good for him, I say. As a science fiction writer, Stuart MacBride makes a wonderful serial killer novelist. In Cold Granite the killer is stalking children and in Dying Light prostitutes and squatters are turning up on the mortuary slab. Lots and lots of lovely grue.

As you can tell from his surname, Stuart MacBride is a Scot. I don't know what it is about the Scots, but they all seem to have a wickedly dry sense of humour. It doesn't matter what they say about almost any subject at all, it always seems to come out witty. Billy Connolly made a whole career out that national characteristic and Stuart MacBride is following close behind.

There's no doubt at all that the novels are both about very sick killers indeed. Bodies abound, horrible mutilations are lovingly described. The story grabs hold of you and simply won't let go (I stayed up until 3.00am reading one of the books – I simply had to find out not only who did, but why they did it). And all the way through, that dry, sardonic Scottish wit weaves the plot threads together. One of the review blurbs calls it: "Ferocious and funny, this is Tartan Noir at its best."

I can't sum the books up any better than that.

Darkness and Light is the latest in John Harvey's ongoing series about retired detective inspector Frank Elder. All the books stand alone, so don't let the fact that this is the third in the series put you off if you haven't read the others.

One of Elder's very first cases involved a murdered woman. After her death, the killer laid her out respectfully on her bed, her arms resting together, the left hand on the right, a slender silver cross and chain encircling her neck. Not a wrinkle, not a fold of her dress was out of place.

Elder never solved the case. No one was ever charged with the murder. The killer remained at liberty to walk the streets and to kill again.

Years later, after his retirement, Elder's ex-wife contacts him. Her friend's sister Claire has vanished in mysterious circumstances. Reluctantly, Elder agrees to dig around and see what he can find. He isn't very enthusiastic. But then Claire is found dead, her body meticulously and peacefully arranged on her bed. It doesn't take Elder long to make the connection with the earlier case that had baffled him all those years before.

As the investigation proceeds, Elder is exposed more and more to the darkest recesses of human behaviour. Some seeds are planted in childhood and they take a long time to grow and flower. Cause and effect, chickens and eggs. Perhaps you can understand, but can you ever condone?

John Harvey's novels are much more than simple police-procedurals. They're even much more than simple serial killer novels like Stuart MacBride's books. I don't think for a minute that MacBride would claim that his books are anything but entertainment (and they are great entertainment). Certainly John Harvey's books are entertaining, but there is much more to them than that. There is a depth to them that is at times quite creepy. Darkness and Light is one of his best.

The hour being still somewhat pre-prandial, Ross and I decided to walk around the town of Martinborough. This takes approximately five minutes, but it is not without interest. There is a small, beautifully maintained park in the town centre which has a war memorial in it. Nothing strange about that – but what is strange is that it memorialises the Boer War and the men of Martinborough who died in it. I don't recall seeing a memorial to that sad little skirmish in any other New Zealand town. Indeed I would have assumed that the Boer War really had no part to play in the history of this country and I would not have expected that any New Zealand town would have sent its men off to fight and die there. But nevertheless, Martinborough had. It was a strangely sad and sobering thought.

The town has an art house cinema which shows films I've never heard of that (presumably) have writing on the bottom of them. This is the very last place that I would have expected to find such an establishment and I have no idea how it manages to survive, but it is housed in a smart building so it must be paying its way. Perhaps TV reception is bad in Martinborough. And maybe all the vintners are French and Czechoslovakian.

Lunch! My companion and I decided upon a smart looking restaurant. I ordered squid and my companion ordered sausages. Wise choices, both of them. We also found that the restaurant had a selection of locally produced beers, so the day was not as wasted as we had at first thought it might be. I drank something light and frothy and my companion drank something dark and frothy. Both were toothsome and refreshing.

My squid was lightly fried in several spices (I think I identified cinnamon, not a spice I would have expected, but it worked very well). It was served with a green salad and a caterpillar – though I was unaware of this extra gustatory treat to begin with, for it was not mentioned on the menu. Obviously an oversight.

It came to my attention towards the end of the meal. I poked at something which I thought might be a small piece of rolled up lettuce. I attempted to unroll it, but it refused to unroll. I pushed it to the side of the plate, and noticed that it appeared to have lots of feet. And a head. With eyes in it. Unblinking.

"I think that might be a caterpillar," I said.

My companion inspected it cursorily. "Added protein," was his expert judgement. He speared a sausage. It wasn't green. I found that strangely soothing.

"Protein," I agreed, "but not in a form that I care for."

I vaguely recalled other small pieces of rolled up lettuce that I had examined with a much less jaundiced eye earlier on in my meal. Could that emphatic hint of bitter sweetness in one mouthful have been caused by something other than a chef with rather too heavy a hand on the spice spoon? Hmmmm.

I took my plate back to the counter and showed the lady the caterpillar. She turned pale and dashed into the kitchen with my plate. Almost instantly a grovelling chef appeared.

"Sorry. So sorry. It should never have happened. So sorry. We'll refund your money, of course. So sorry."

Pink and peeved, he returned to the kitchen. Faint roars emerged in which the words: "…and examine every single salad green with a microscope before you put it on a plate…" could be distinguished.

Meanwhile the lady behind the counter had a problem. The till was computer controlled and while it was more than willing to open up in order to receive money, it stubbornly refused to open up in order to dispense it. That was against the natural order of things. The lady desperately pushed buttons and pleaded with the computer, but the till remained firmly closed. Eventually she had to call the manager who poked at special managerial keys. The computer was unimpressed and paid no attention. The till drawer remained closed. The manager gave up.

"We'll enter it as another meal," she said. "At least that way the drawer will open for me! I'll make a manual adjustment in the accounts when we cash up tonight."

She rang up another squid and caterpillar. "Ping!" said the computer, and opened the drawer. The manager took my money out and returned it to me.

"Time to go home," said Ross.

So we did.

Chad Oliver A Star Above It - Selected Stories Volume 1 NESFA Press
Chad Oliver Far From This Earth - Selected Stories Volume 2 NESFA Press
Vernor Vinge Rainbows End Tor
Christopher Moore A Dirty Job Morrow
Stuart MacBride Cold Granite Harper Collins
Stuart MacBride Dying Light Harper Collins
John Harvey Darkness and Light Heinemann
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