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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (soggissimus)

Alan Goes Out For Dinner

It has been swithening (sic) for what seems like considerably longer than the traditional forty days and forty nights. The ground is saturated and squelchy and, in many low lying places, under several feet of water. Chimneys poke pathetically through the waves. Large parts of Wellington have fallen off the cliffs onto other large parts of Wellington; generally on to the roads that wind alongside the sheer cliff faces. Traffic inches slowly past the blocked lanes. Tempers are frayed and journeys that usually take minutes start to take hours or even days. Drivers die of hunger and thirst, trapped in never ending queues. Desiccated driver corpses festoon the sides of the roads.

"Come for dinner," suggested Ross.

"What a good idea," I replied. Since I intended to drink a smidgeon, I called a taxi. The taxi turned up in good time, and I climbed in to it, clutching my smidgeon. We set off on our journey.

Then we hit the queues and began to crawl along. I telephoned Ross.

"There's been another slip on State Highway Two," I said, "and I'm stuck in the queue. Expect me when you see me. I might be some time."

"Ah," said Ross. "That might explain why Laurie and Annette haven't turned up yet either."

"Indeed it might," I said. "I'll give them a ring."

No sooner said than done.

"Hello," I said. "I'm stuck in a queue."

"Funny that," said Annette. "So are we! I think there must have been another slip."

"Oh well. I'll see you at Ross's place sometime or other."

I settled back and gloomily watched the meter ticking over far too rapidly for comfort. Dollar after dollar added itself to the already frighteningly large total.

The taxi was in the right hand lane, working on the theory that when we reached the slip, it would be the left hand lane that was blocked since the left hand lane was closest to the cliff face. For a while the cars in the right hand lane did indeed move faster than the cars in the left hand lane and I experienced the giddy thrill overtaking, even though we were only moving at 3 kph. One of the cars just ahead started to look vaguely familiar and once we got alongside it I rang Laurie and Annette again.

"If you glance to your right," I said. "You will observe me sitting in a taxi that is about to overtake you."

They both glanced to their right, and we waved enthusiastically to each other for a while. Then boredom set in and we stopped.

For no immediately apparent reason, the traffic in the left hand lane suddenly speeded up and Laurie and Annette pulled ahead of my taxi. I watched their rear lights vanish into the murky rain. The only amusement left to me now was to return to watching the enormously large number on the taxi meter get even larger. It reached a number that approximated New Zealand's national debt and we were still stuck in the traffic. I began to wonder just how large the taxi fare would eventually become. Perhaps it was time to sip a smidgeon…

We arrived at the slip and, as expected, the road reduced itself to a single lane. The left hand lane was completely blocked by what appeared to be an entire pulverized mountain. Seven maids with seven mops were slowly sweeping it away. I was absolutely certain that half a year would not be nearly enough time to clear it away. I shed a bitter tear. I am the walrus. Coo coo ca choo.

The number on the taxi meter was now so large that the entire contents of Fort Knox could not have paid the fare. And anyway, the taxi driver's pockets weren't deep enough to store that number of dollars. The figure asymptotically approached infinity and the taxi driver began to giggle like a maniac as we slowly edged past the vast broken bit of Wellington.

The sides of the meter were visibly expanding now as the display area got larger and larger in order to accommodate the increasingly ridiculous total. The meter was occupying most of the front of the taxi and there was scarcely any room for me and the driver any more. The display indicated that my debt was now a googolplex dollars. Next stop infinity plus one. Then something went sproing! deep inside the mechanism and the meter instantly shrank back to its usual size as the total wrapped round and the numbers started counting up again from one dollar. I was reprieved!

Once we got past the slip, progress was fairly rapid and we soon arrived at Ross's house. The taxi pulled up behind Laurie's parked car and the driver and I looked at the meter. The final total was $65.

"Give me $45, and we'll call it quits," said the taxi driver.

"Sir, you are a scholar and a gentleman," I told him, for indeed he was. And I still had a smidgeon left!

It's that time of the year again and Gardner Dozois is back with the 23rd annual anthology of what he considers to be the world's best science fiction. As is so often the case with anthologies, the stories are a bit of a mixed bunch. Some are brilliant and some I found almost unreadable (and one was literally unreadable – I simply couldn't be bothered to finish it). But the overall standard is so high that as usual I have no hesitation in recommending the book. Of course you and I are most unlikely to agree on which stories are good and which are bad. You might love the ones I hated and vice-versa. Indeed you may even finish (and admire) the story that I couldn't reach the end of. So it goes.

David Gerrold (he of tribble and chtorr fame) has written a homosexual time travel story which is just magnificent. It isn't really a new twist on the idea of time travel; there isn't anything "technical" or "science fictional" in the story that you haven't seen a thousand times before. Indeed I felt that the ending was so completely predictable that it was a little bit of a let down. But that may be because I've read far too many time travel stories and I've got a tad jaded. Nevertheless, despite that little disappointment, I still felt it was a very strong story because the characters really came alive and the homosexual elements certainly added an interesting dimension to what otherwise might have been merely routine.

Gene Wolfe's story is weird, even for him. It takes place in a city which is built on a (presumably tectonic) plate. The plate is sailing through a very slow sea – perhaps a lava sea, though that is not clear. As it travels over the waves, the plate inclines first one way and then the other as the waves move it slowly up and down. There are no weather forecasts broadcast on the radio; instead the forecasts simply attempt to predict the expected angle the plate will make with the sea today. The hero actually has an inclinometer on his desk so that he can measure the angle and compare it to the forecast. As the story opens, a most unusual and interesting phenomenon has taken place. For the first time in ages, the plate is flat. But over time the angle increases again as the waves push up against the plate. As the angle becomes more and more acute, crews of handymen must travel round the houses and offices of the city in order to bolt the furniture to the walls and floors to stop it slipping. Because the angle keeps changing (albeit slowly), the crews have to constantly re-visit all their sites in order to adjust the position of the bolts to cope with the new angle. And then one day a crisis develops – another city is observed floating on the sea! What can that mean? Will the cities collide? Time to consult the geologists.

Alistair Reynolds has two stories in the collection. One is a trivially dull space opera (just what I would have expected from Alistair Reynolds). But the second one is a surprisingly subtle discussion about the nature of art and inspiration. I've never been too impressed by Alistair Reynolds in the past, but this story is so clever and so impressive that I might have to change my mind.

Stephen Baxter's story opens just after the end of the world as we know it and then explains what happens over the next several million years. Only Stephen Baxter would have the cheek to try and do that in about 10 pages, and probably only Stephen Baxter would have the skill to pull it off so cleverly. Very impressive indeed.

Bruce Sterling introduces aliens to the 11th century crusades. However that's just on the surface. It seems clear to me that he is using the original crusades as a metaphor for the modern crisis in the middle-east. Nevertheless the story is not preachy, and Sterling tells a very good, very enthralling tale.

Harry Turtledove is represented with an alternate history story (what else could Turtledove possibly write?). The painter and naturalist John Audubon sails to Atlantis to paint some of the rare and curious birds that live there.

Michael Swanwick tells a very odd dinosaur story and William Sanders does something black and grim with global warming.

I have absolutely no idea what Gwyneth Jones was writing about in her story since, as I always do, I bounced right off her prose and back into the real world. I've never been able to read anything by Gwyneth Jones; her words simply slide off my eyeballs and drop onto the floor. I suspect that says a lot more about me than it says about Gwyneth Jones – critics whose opinions I respect (such as John Clute, for example) have a very high opinion of Gwyneth Jones; and for all I know, so do you. I think I'll simply disqualify myself from having a valid opinion here.

So those are the highlights and the lowlights of this year's collection, as far as I'm concerned anyway. The other stories lie somewhere in between those extremes; and I don't think you'll go far wrong if you give it a permanent place on your shelves.

Kim Newman is back with a fix-up novel called The Man From The Diogenes Club. The Diogenes Club has appeared in a lot of Newman's stories. He's "borrowed" it from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – the club is a rather shady organisation which seems originally to have been set up by and controlled by Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft. It has a never very closely defined relationship to the British secret services. Newman has taken this shadowy organisation and given us many more stories of the adventures of several of its members. The stories in the current collection all take place during the 1970s. Mycroft Holmes is long dead, of course, but the Diogenes Club continues to operate. The stories in this book are all concerned with the adventures of one Richard Jeperson. He is a sort of amalgamation of John Steed, the Saint, Adam Adamant and Jason King (particularly Jason King). And of course he has a beautiful female companion (a sort of Mrs Peel figure, but prettier, more glamorous and much more ruthless). The stories tend more towards the occult rather than pure SF. They are illuminated with Newman's characteristic wit and, as always, it is great fun to play the game of spot the reference as Newman slyly sends up the genre clichés.

Most of the stories in The Man From The Diogenes Club are either previously unpublished or else they have been taken from obscure small magazines, so you are very unlikely to have come across many of them before. However the same is not true of another "new" Newman anthology Dead Travel Fast. Almost all the stories here have been taken from other mass-market Kim Newman collections. I think there are a couple of new stories, but they are short and not very memorable. If you already have a large collection of Kim Newman short stories, don't bother with Dead Travel Fast. But if you are new to Newman (so to speak) this would be a very good place for you to start.

Mick Farren's new novel Conflagration is a sequel to his earlier Kindling. The Four teenagers are now receiving visions of albino twins. They are unsure of what this might mean, but nevertheless they find it frightening for it seems obvious that the twins are associated with the enemy Mosul hordes.

However the battle to free Virginia from the Mosul invaders has gone well and the Mosul are now in full retreat. Prime Minister Kennedy goes to London to negotiate an alliance with the English and the Norse. The Four accompany him and much intrigue ensues (in between the parties and the kinky sex). They meet spies from the Morgana's Web network and discover that the albino twins are also known to the British. It is suspected that they are part of a breeding programme set up by the Mosul witch Jeakqual-Ahrach.

Then Kennedy is assassinated, and Lady Cordelia is kidnapped and taken to Paris. The other three members of the Four together with the enigmatic Yancey Slide come to her rescue. The scene is set for a sequel.

There's a certain amount of fun (though not much) in watching Farren play with characters like Kennedy who was a real person in our history as well as being a real person in the alternate history Farren is narrating. But that doesn't compensate for the essentially unimaginative, and very slow moving story.

I really didn't believe that Farren could write a novel that was duller and more boring than Kindling; but I was wrong. Conflagration is orders of magnitude more dull. Talk about writing and plotting by numbers! I can only assume that Mick Farren has finally come off the drugs, and therefore his imagination has died and become prosaic. All the magic has gone. It's a shame. It's high time he started to dissipate himself again so that we can get some more good books out of him.

I seem to have been reading a lot of short stories this month. Shuteye For The Time Broker is Paul di Filippo's latest collection. There's no unifying theme to it – it's simply a collection of stuff. di Filippo's style is often quite surrealistic and his themes are often bizarre. If there ever really was such a movement as the "new wave" I think di Filippo would have found himself to be very comfortable there.

Every week I go to Woolworths to do the grocery shopping. Most weeks I wander up to the delicatessen counter and purchase a few hundred grams of this and a few hundred grams of that. Sometimes a few hundred grams of the other. All relatively fat free, of course.

The nice lady behind the counter weighs my choices accurately, presses a magic button and prints out a price tag. She picks up the plastic bag with the goodies in it, twirls it, twiddles it, makes a magic gesture and sticks the price label to it. I take the bag from her and place it in my trolley. In the fullness of time I pay for it and take it home.

Round about lunchtime, fancying a sandwich, I take the bag of goodies out of the fridge. And every week I discover that the simple plastic bag with the turkey pastrami (or whatever) in it has turned into a Klein Bottle. I can see the turkey pastrami. I can feel the turkey pastrami through the convoluted folds of the bag. What I can't do is remove the turkey pastrami from the bag. No matter how I twist and turn the plastic, no matter which orifice I stick my hand into, the turkey pastrami remains just out of reach on the other side of the plastic. I follow every fold of the bag with my fingers and there is no doubt at all that the bag has become a three dimensional mobius strip. It only has one side and one edge and one surface. And the turkey pastrami isn't on any of them. It's hiding in plain view on the side that doesn't exist. And as I do every week, I have no alternative but to rip the bag to shreds. This collapses some sort of wave function, and it forces the bag to re-enter the same space-time continuum that I inhabit. Once more the bag has an inside and an outside; dimensions that previously were sorely lacking. The turkey pastrami is now available for my sandwich, but I'm too exhausted to eat it.

It's extremely frustrating!

Last week I was in Woolworths again. They had a vacancy in the delicatessen. There was an advert sellotaped to the glass:

Wanted -- someone to serve on the delicatessen counter. Must have an in depth knowledge of exotic meats and a passion for pork. Must be turned on by turkey, and must cherish chicken. Must be good with people. Must have an advanced degree in topology.

Michael Connelly is perhaps best known for an ongoing series of novels about a hard-bitten American detective called Harry Bosch. But he does write other stories as well, and The Lincoln Lawyer is a stand alone novel about a lawyer (surprise, surprise) who owns a Lincoln Continental car (surprise, surprise). He is appointed to defend a suspect in an assault case and the stage is set for a fairly standard courtroom drama.

This is a genre which has degenerated beyond the point of cliché. It has sunk into slimy depths that perhaps have to be read to be believed. It doesn't help that for many years the archetypal example was a seemingly never ending series of ever more dull stories by Erle Stanley Gardner about a lawyer called Perry Mason. These were turned into an even more dire set of TV shows. Then Gardner died, but the genre took on a zombie-like life of its own and schlock writers cranked out brain-dead Perry Mason look-alikes for years and years. The kiss of death was finally delivered by John Grisham who adopted the genre and made it his own in a series of unlikely best sellers that added nothing new and said nothing original.

Only a writer of incredible skill and insight could breathe even a shadow of life into such a discredited type of story. Michael Connelly is just such a writer, thank goodness.

The Lincoln Lawyer grabs hold of you and simply won't let go. To explain more would be a plot spoiler of massive proportions. Suffice it to say that you shouldn't even pause for breath while reading it. Don't even blink or you might miss a vital twist. The story has an enormously intricate plot, full of tangles and misdirection and sleight of pen (so to speak). I really didn't want to put it down, I just HAD to read the damn thing. I really, really needed to know what happened next.

I bought the book at Whitcoulls. When I got it home, I discovered that the price label was fixed on with permanent glue, and I couldn't peel it off without damaging the cover. If Whitcoulls continue with this bad practice I am going to boycott them.

Talking of enormously intricate plots, allow me to introduce you to a writer called Reggie Nadelson. Her books remind me a lot of the early Len Deighton novels. It's hard to tell what's going on until you reach the end; and sometimes even then it's not very clear. I think I read Deighton's Funeral In Berlin about six times before I finally figured out who was doing what to whom and why. I get exactly that same sense of excited bewilderment from Nadelson's books.

Nadelson's hero, Artie Cohen, is neither as cynical nor as sarcastic as the nameless narrator of Deighton's books (nobody could be), but nevertheless the characters are the same kind of wheelers and dealers, movers and shakers that Deighton peopled his books with. Nadelson's stories concentrate more on organised crime and Deighton was concerned with Cold War politics – but sometimes those two things are exactly the same thing, particularly when you consider that Nadelson's villains tend to be the Russian mafiosi that clawed their way to prominence after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War froze solid. They are wry and enigmatic people, and they hold shallow conversations of enormous depth (though it may be several hundred pages before that becomes apparent). It is always clear that many of them know far more than they are telling – hints and allusions abound – though whether or not that matters may well be moot. Sometimes casual encounters are just that; and sometimes they aren't.

The blurb on Nadelson's novels compares her to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And since the critics used to call Len Deighton "the Raymond Chandler of the cloak and dagger set" I think those are valid comparisons to make. I can absolutely guarantee that if you like Chandler, Hammett and Deighton, you will love Reggie Nadelson.

In Red Mercury Blues, someone shoots an ex-Soviet KGB agent on prime time TV in New York. Artie is soon involved in the case because he knew the man. Artie himself was actually born in the old Soviet Union and he spent his childhood in Moscow. His father was a KGB agent, but when Artie was just a child, the family emigrated to Israel and then eventually to America. Artie changed his name and grew up as an American. But he never forgot his childhood, and he still speaks fluent Russian and understands the Russian psyche (as much as anybody can understand the Russian psyche, anyway). The man who has been shot was a close friend of Artie's father. As a child Artie used to call him Uncle Gennady. Now he is dead. Why?

Artie suspects that the Russian mafia (who hang out in the Brighton Beach area of New York) may be involved. After all they are likely to bear grudges against the KGB. Also it appears that there is more than a little nostalgia among some of the émigré old guard for the heady days of Stalinism. Perhaps there are murky motives hiding there as well. Artie has an Aunt who emigrated from America to Moscow in the 1920s in order to live in practice the communist ideal that she had espoused in theory at home. She is still alive and she hasn't lost that early idealism. Artie visits her and asks pointed questions but the answers are vague.

In the chaos that remained after the Soviet Union tore itself apart there were many money making opportunities. That's how the mafia big wigs reached their positions of power. One very lucrative business is the smuggling of radioactive material suitable for making bombs. Terrorists, communist idealists, all these are potential buyers and there is no shortage of suppliers; the old Soviet Union stockpiled untold tons of the stuff.

Put all that together and it starts to seem quite frightening…

In Hot Poppies we learn about a trendy new turn on. Hot Poppy is heroin made from irradiated poppies. It is supposed to be the ultimate high. A Chinese girl is murdered in New York's diamond district. The world is awash with refugees and there is a lot of money to be made smuggling them across borders. The same channels can also be used to smuggle dope. People, dope, what's the difference? Soon Hong Kong will revert to Chinese ownership. It's already a vital part of the dope trail and the anticipation of the Communist takeover is generating a lot of refugees. There are sweat shops abroad that need cheap staff; there are noses and veins that need stimulation. The Russian mafia are always willing to meet those kinds of needs and they are flocking to Hong Kong in droves in order to take advantage of a window of opportunity for making money that may soon be closing. Artie's mafia contacts may be helpful here.

In Bloody London we meet the corpse of Thomas Pascoe, a millionaire who had the final say in who was or was not allowed to live in an apartment on a multi-million dollar block that he owned. Could someone have killed him simply because they were refused permission to live there? One sitting tenant is an old Russian lady and the authorities call on Artie Cohen to help. Of course nothing is simple. Pascoe has British connections and even after the discovery of the murderer, the case cannot be considered closed and Artie has to travel to London following the money trail of the property buyers and sellers. Not only are the Russian mafia investing heavily in New York real estate, they are also investing in the new development work along the River Thames as the old dock areas are converted into luxury lifestyle living areas.

Bloody London is the most complex of Nadelson's novels and there is much about it that I do not yet understand. Motives are murkier than usual and plot twists harder to follow. I'm going to have to read it again…

We've had the cats vaccinated against feline AIDS. It's a relatively new vaccine which was developed in America. It's an offshoot of research into human HIV/AIDS. Perhaps one day there will be a human vaccine as well...

Anyway, feline AIDS is endemic in New Zealand and about 20% of the feline population has it. It is passed on through bites and scratches. Since my cats are constantly fighting with each other, as well as with any other moggy that wanders into view, it seemed a wise precaution to have them vaccinated. Harpo is particularly prone to fighting. Sometimes when you stroke him, you can't feel anything except half-healed scabs! We were told that the AIDS vaccine is only about 80% successful, but nevertheless we decided that any protection was better than no protection at all.

The initial treatment involves 3 injections given at 3-weekly intervals. After that, there's an annual booster. Since we've got three cats, we've spent a grand total of about $500 on the first three injections for each of them. Cats really are very expensive animals sometimes.

Each time we've taken them in for an injection, the vet has given them a general checkup, just to make sure they are in good health. He put Harpo up on his bench and poked and prodded a bit. Then he stuffed a thermometer up Harpo's bum and waited a few minutes. While he waited, he made casual conversation with me.

"Should be an exciting week, next week," he said. "The World cup final."

I made non-committal noises, being less than interested in football. The vet took the thermometer out of Harpo and examined it closely.

"And there's tennis as well," he said. "In fact, it's the Wimbledon final today."

"How did you figure that out just by reading a thermometer?" I asked him, greatly impressed.

Gardner Dozois The Year's Best SF 23rd Annual Edition St Martins
Kim Newman The Man From The Diogenes Club Monkey Brain
Kim Newman Dead Travel Fast Dinoship
Mick Farren Conflagration Tor
Paul Di Filippo Shuteye For The Time Broker Thunder's Mouth
Michael Connelly The Lincoln Lawyer Allen & Unwin
Reggie Nadelson Red Mercury Blues Arrow
Reggie Nadelson Hot Poppies Arrow
Reggie Nadelson Bloody London Arrow
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