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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (unix viginti)

In Which Alan Travels In Time

It was twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play...
John Lennon / Paul McCartney

"I've booked you onto a Unix training course," said my boss.

I was puzzled. "I use Unix every day," I said. "My extensive knowledge of Unix is one of the reasons you hired me for this job in the first place. Why do I need a training course?"

"You don't," he said. "I want you to evaluate the course to see if it's worth sending your clients on it."

I was having major problems with my clients. They had a nasty habit of ringing me at all hours of the day and night.

"The computer's broken!"

"Can you describe what happened?"


"Type this magic spell for me..."

And then I would listen to the clatter of the keyboard in my headset as their fingers fumbled and failed to find the correct keys. Generally whatever they ended up typing would make the situation worse, not better. It wasn't really their fault -- they had very little understanding of their computer systems and as far as they were concerned, what I was asking them to type really was a magic spell. Any education that could ameliorate this irritation had to be a good thing. It seemed that for once in his life my boss had had a good idea.

"Where and when?" I asked.

"There and then," he said. And so it came to pass.

The training company was called Auldhouse. It was a very new company and the course I was attending was one of the first they had ever run. The trainer was a charmingly vague American lady called Cathy Curley who appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by the sea of faces that stared stonily back at her.

"OK - let's get ourselves logged on..."

Into The Media Web is a collection of essays by Michael Moorcock. The essays cover every aspect of his career; some are autobiographical, some are literary criticisms and some can only be described as manifestos where Moorcock tries to justify (very successfully, in my opinion) the extremely radical approach to literature that he took when he was editor of New Worlds magazine in the 1960s and 1970s.

Moorcock is a man of contradictions. Though his public literary persona is that of a rebel seeking constantly to redefine the boundaries of his art, his favourite reading material consists of long out of print society novels by long forgotten Edwardian novelists. Indeed, knowing this, it is quite possible to see that influence on his own writing, particularly on the later works such as London Bone or the Pyat novels.

But like him or loathe him, it is impossible to deny his effect on twentieth century literature -- and I don't just mean on fantasy and science fiction, the two genres in which he began his writing life and with which he made his initial reputation. He has long since left these behind in the service of what, for want of a better word, you might refer to as mainstream literature.

And that literary influence is, of course, what makes this book so important. Anything that lets us peek into the mind of so important a writer is to be welcomed. Many of the essays in this book have only previously been published in very obscure, long out of print magazines. And some have never been published before.

Savoy books are to be congratulated in the production of this 717 page tome -- and it really is a tome; they've printed it on very heavy grade paper and bound the pages in enormously thick boards. The entire monstrosity weighs a ton (you certainly wouldn't want to drop it on your toe) and there were times when I felt I needed a wheelbarrow to carry it around with me. There is no doubt that this book has been built for the ages; it will last for several lifetimes.

The Fry Chronicles is the second volume of Stephen Fry's autobiography. It begins where the first volume (Moab Is My Washpot) ends -- Fry has just been released from prison and is about to go to Cambridge University. The book follows his university career, his first meeting with Hugh Laurie, and his first tentative steps into the world of the professional entertainer. He closes the story with his first nose full of cocaine. I wonder what volume three will reveal about his life?

In some ways, it is possible to claim that Stephen Fry has had it very easy. After all, his life has simply followed the traditional road to success for members of the British Establishment. A public school education and then Cambridge University meant that through the whole of his early life he was surrounded by the future movers and shakers. Despite paying lip service to egalitarianism, modern Britain is still very much a product of the class system and the people with power and influence in all walks of life are still the privileged few who have followed this traditional road. So growing up with the next generation of the people in charge gave Fry an automatic entry into their world. There is absolutely no doubt that this was a factor in the course that his life has taken, but it is by no means the whole story. No matter how many friends you have in high places, you still need to have the ability to perform. Even in the class ridden mess that makes up British life, incompetence is seldom rewarded for very long. Stephen Fry is hugely talented and he has made the most of the doors that were initially opened up for him simply because he was in the right place at the right time and therefore he knew the right people.

The Fry Chronicles is erudite, witty, cynical and laugh out loud funny, as is Stephen Fry himself of course. Fry is modest about his success and full of praise for what he perceives to be the much greater talents of his friends (Hugh Laurie et al). This is not false modesty; it is clear that he genuinely believes it (and I'm sure that this feeling has contributed in no small part to the depression from which he has suffered all his life long).

I am a huge admirer of Stephen Fry and I loved this book to bits.

It soon became clear that there were far too many people in the class, and Cathy was in danger of losing control as she tried to deal with all the questions and pleas for assistance that were coming at her non-stop from all sides. It also didn't help that at least two of the students were pompous idiots who kept trying to show off by constantly interrupting with questions whose sole purpose was to impress the rest of us with their grasp of obscure minutiae. Hey, everybody -- look at all the clever stuff I know. It was clear to me that all their depth was in shallow places.

Cathy was obviously very knowledgeable about Unix. She knew the subject backwards, forwards, sideways and upside down. She made everything look easy, even when it wasn't. I discovered later that she had actually worked at Berkeley with some of the original developers of the operating system. I began to wonder where I'd left my autograph book...

I was particularly impressed with the way she handled the training material. There was always a spoonful of sugar to take with the medicine -- lots of nice jokes, and amusing exercises for us to do. Cathy was also extraordinarily good at varying the pace and rhythm of the lessons; we'd grind slowly up a peak of learning and then pause for breath and race down the other side with a joke followed by a relaxing cup of coffee. If you drew a graph of her class showing achievement versus time, the shape would be a saw-tooth or possibly a sine curve.

In an effort to ease the pressure on her (and also to curb the excesses of the showoffs who were annoying me), I tried to help Cathy with some of the questions and the practical exercises. Nothing was ever said in any formal sense, but it quickly became understood between us that when the students were doing the exercises, Cathy would look after one side of the room and I'd look after the other. It seemed to work, and I had a lot of fun.

At the end of the week I went back to the office.

"How was it?" asked my boss.

"Pretty good," I said. "I think we ought to start sending my clients on the course as soon as we can."

"I'll see to it," he said.

Unfortunately he was overtaken by events before he could organise anything. Not very long after our conversation took place, mysterious men in shiny suits and tightly knotted ties appeared. They held whispered conversations in locked offices with all the managers. Something was obviously going on, and it wasn't long before we were all summoned to a meeting at which it was revealed that the company was to be reorganised along more efficient lines. This was, of course, a very positive thing and the future was bright with promise. The light at the end of the tunnel, we were assured, was positively blinding in its intensity. All we had to do was travel through the tunnel together -- well, those of us who remained would travel together. It seemed that a lot of people would be exploring other options instead, and perhaps spending more time with their families.

The next few months were total chaos. My boss was an early casualty and I was shifted from department to department as my job description and responsibilities were organised, reorganised and then modified again. I changed managers like other people changed underwear and on one never to be forgotten day I was introduced to my new boss in the morning, and then I was introduced to his replacement in the afternoon. It was not a happy time and I was not a happy vegemite.

Then I saw a job advert -- Auldhouse was looking to hire a Unix trainer. Well, why not? I sent off an application.

Terry Pratchett's new novel I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth novel in his sequence about Tiffany Aching, the witch of the Chalk. As with many of his novels, there is a very dark undercurrent to the story. Even when he is writing for children (and the Tiffany Aching series is definitely meant for a younger audience) Pratchett refuses to pretend that the world is all sweetness and light. There is a temptation to claim that his own problem with Alzheimers is a direct cause of the darkness in his stories, and perhaps there is some truth to that. But I think that it has always been there, right from the very beginning of his career. The jokes have always been tinged with bitterness; that's why they are so funny. And remember that even as the reader is laughing uproariously at the tragedies that unfold in the books, the characters themselves are not laughing at all. To them the whole thing is deadly serious; their sorrows and their pain truly are tragic and they see nothing funny about their world at all. The uneasy contrast between the internal world of the story and the external world of the reader is what gives Pratchett's books their strength. They aren't just light froth and sometimes they aren't frothy at all.

In an earlier novel, Tiffany had a romance with Roland, the son of the local Baron. This has now ended and the Baron's death has removed some of the protection that Tiffany once enjoyed. Roland is engaged to marry Letitia, the daughter of a (very obnoxious) Duchess and she does not approve of Tiffany at all. Meanwhile, some of the residents of the Chalk are stirring up hatred and accusations against Tiffany. On the one hand, a witch can be very helpful but on the other hand, a witch is an object of suspicion and people are feeling uncomfortable around Tiffany, particularly when she interferes too much in the affairs of the village. What business is it of hers when a father beats his daughter? The villagers can take care of their own family affairs.

They misinterpret Tiffany's actions and motives; they feel more and more suspicious of what she does. And she feels correspondingly isolated. Add to this the fact that she is being stalked by the Cunning Man, a personification of suspicion, envious rage, hatred, mob violence, and the witch hunt, and even the Nac Mac Feegle may not be able to protect her this time.

Dark, funny and very deep -- I Shall Wear Midnight is one of Pratchett's best (and most uncomfortable) novels.

Cherie Priest's Hugo-nominated steampunk novel Boneshaker was the start of a series that she refers to as The Clockwork Century. Dreadnought and Clementine are two more novels set in the same world. You don't have to have read Boneshaker to appreciate these books; they stand alone very well, though towards the end of Dreadnought we do meet some characters from the earlier novel and so, in a very small sense, Dreadnought can be regarded as a direct sequel

Dreadnought tells the story of Mercy Lynch who is a nurse in a Confederate hospital. As the book opens, she learns that her husband (who fought on the Union side) has died in a POW camp. To add to the tragedy, she also receives notice that her father is very sick. He is requesting her presence at his bedside. Unfortunately he lives in Seattle which is thousands of miles away across a war torn country. Mercy decides to risk the cross-country trip to the west to see him. Her journey begins on a dirigible airship. However it is shot down as she crosses the front-lines of the war, and she makes the rest of the journey by boat and train, eventually taking a fabulously dangerous ride on the train called Dreadnought. There are two mysteries on this train -- a car whose windows are blocked out is guarded by a distinctly unpleasant scientist called Melvin Purdue who claims that the car contains the bodies of dead soldiers which are being returned to their relatives; a transparent and obvious lie. There is also a sealed car at the front of the train which is guarded by an army detachment. The train comes under almost constant attack (somebody obviously knows the secrets of the two sealed cars) and there are rumours that a very fast train called Shenandoah is speeding to a fateful rendezvous with Dreadnought.

If you have read Boneshaker, you'll very quickly work out what Melvin Purdue has concealed in his car full of dead bodies. But the revelations about what is being guarded by the troops will certainly take you by surprise.

Dreadnought has a complex and well worked out plot. It's a rattling good yarn and a worthy successor to Boneshaker. I enjoyed it a lot.

Clementine is much more of a novella than a novel. Nevertheless it manages to pack a lot of material into its rather small space. It tells two parallel tales (though eventually they join up, of course). In one story we follow airship captain Croggan Hainey as he pursues the thieves who have stolen his dirigible. The other tale concerns the Confederate spy Maria "Belle" Boyd who has been recruited by the Pinkerton detective agency to stop Croggan Hainey from reclaiming his own.

Eventually the two form an uneasy alliance -- Maria finds her loyalty tested by the discoveries she makes about Croggan and the ship he is pursuing so doggedly and it seems that their interests coincide despite all appearances to the contrary. Clementine tells a much more subtle story than either Boneshaker or Dreadnought but it is no less enthralling. Every chapter moves at a non-stop thrill-a-minute pace; there are airship fights, spies, thieves, and giant guns. What more could any steampunk fan want? But there's also a lot of subtlety here as well as Cherie Priest, through the actions of her characters, explores what it means to be black in a society full of racial prejudice; a society that despite its surface steampunk trappings is not a million miles removed from our own.

A couple of days later, across the other side of town and quite unbeknownst to me, a conversation took place between Cathy and her boss Judy.

"Cathy," said Judy, "is there any way you can postpone your trip back to America? We're finding it terribly difficult to replace you. Would you believe that we've only had one response to the job advert?"

"I'm sorry Judy," Cathy was firm. "It's far too late to change the arrangements now. I'm getting married at the end of the month. The church is booked, the relatives are making travel arrangements. I'm sorry, but I'm flying home to California at the end of the week. I'm going to miss you, and I'm going to miss New Zealand, but I'm definitely going back to America."

Judy frowned, and her partner Duncan said, "Have you any suggestions about who we might find to replace you? Perhaps one of the students you've been teaching over the last few months? Do any of them stand out in your mind?"

"The person you really need," said Cathy thoughtfully, "is the guy who helped me out on that first course. He was really good. I can't remember his name though."

"The only person who's responded to the job advert," said Judy, "is somebody called Alan Robson."

"That's him!" said Cathy firmly. "I remember the name now. That's the guy. He's the one you want."

"I'll send him a letter inviting him to come for an interview," said Duncan who liked to do things very formally.

The job interview was an absolute farce.

"Hello, Alan. I'm Judy," said Judy, "and this is Duncan."

"Hello, Judy," I said. "Hello Duncan. I'm Alan."

"When can you start?" asked Judy.

And so I had a new job. I went back to the office and handed in my notice to my latest manager.

"Why are you leaving?" He sounded honestly puzzled. "There are so many exciting opportunities just around the corner."

About two months later, the company ceased to exist. But by then I was long gone...

On the morning of my very first Unix class I didn't have butterflies in my tummy, I had vultures. I could feel them bumping into my stomach lining and pecking hard to see if I was dead yet so that they could start to feed. I looked at the faces of my students, and the faces looked back at me, some with enthusiasm and expectation, some with disdain. What was I supposed to do now?

I tried hard to picture all the teachers I'd had in my life. What did they do? How had they handled things? The only example that came to mind was my Latin teacher screaming that I was a steatopygous bushman when I declined to decline mensa for him. Somehow I felt that this would probably not be an appropriate teaching technique to use on my Unix students. I tried to remember how Cathy had done things. Surely I couldn't go wrong if I followed her example?

"OK - let's get ourselves logged on..."

And we were off and running!

With Child Of Fire Harry Connolly starts an urban fantasy sequence known collectively as The Twenty Palaces.

Ray Lilly is an ex-con. We are not really sure what he did to get himself locked up, though hints are dropped and conclusions can be drawn. He has been released from jail by the "Twenty Palace Society". The only thing we know about the society is that their mission is to track down and destroy anyone from outside the society who is using magic. They themselves have sole claim on all spell books and magical artefacts.

Ray is assigned to work with Annalise. She seems almost indestructible and has a really bad attitude about almost everything. She regards Ray as her "wooden man" and she fully expects him to die soon.

They are sent to a small town to investigate the disappearance of children. Strangely, once the children have disappeared, no one remembers that they were ever alive; not even their parents. The story of the investigation is tight and fast paced. Ray and Annalise are not very likeable (indeed, that's an understatement; they are really rather detestable). But we don't know much about them or their backgrounds, and let's face it, they have a very unlikeable job to do. When you spend your time killing anyone who uses, or has been touched by, "unauthorized" magic, you gain a hard edge that colours your world view. It's all too easy to lapse into cynicism and to regard life (anybody's life) as cheap.

This is the first novel in a new series. Indeed, it is Harry Connolly's first novel full stop. So perhaps weaknesses are to be expected. I found the last hundred pages or so rather dull for the story turned into a tedious chase sequence that seemed to be there simply to fill up the page count. But the basic idea is so intriguing and the characters (nasty as they are) are so well drawn that I'm willing to overlook that and I'm quite looking forward to reading the next Twenty Palaces novel.

John Boyne is a mainstream novelist best known, perhaps, for The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. He's the last person you'd think would write a science fiction novel and indeed, despite its science fictional premise, The Thief Of Time is very much a work of mainstream fiction. And a fascinatingly brilliant book as well.

The story concerns Matthieu Zela, a man who has lived for more than 256 years. He was born in pre-revolutionary France and over the course of his long life has been involved in many of the seminal events of the years between then and now.

This use of a seemingly immortal protagonist to provide continuity as an observer and commentator on large sweeps of history is a well known literary device (Nicholas Monsarrat used it, for example, in his unfinished Master Mariner series). But John Boyne does it particularly well here and he manages to tell both a fascinating story about the birth of the modern world and a very personal story of what it meant to grow up with it. And I confess that I had to rub away a tear or two when I read the last few sentences. I defy anyone not to like this book.

Then somebody blinked and twenty years passed; just like that. A lot of things happened during those years. Judy and Duncan sold the company and retired to live a life of sybaritic luxury and golf. I got a new boss called Melanie and a line manager called Craig. I ran an awful lot of Unix training courses. And even today, twenty years down the track, I'm still using some of the teaching techniques and jokes that I heard Cathy use on that very first course. By now I've got the timing of the jokes honed to absolute perfection.

Mind you, it was fifteen years before I managed to get my first laugh.

"Let's go for lunch to celebrate your twentieth anniversary," said Melanie.

Lunch was in one of Wellington's most magnificent restaurants which sits in the heart of one of Wellington's sleaziest areas. I suspect that tired and emotional businessmen searching for fleshy pleasures of the evening often use the restaurant as an excuse when they bump into acquaintances and colleagues beneath the red lights. "Oh! I'm just on my way to Logan Brown," they say. "Got to dash!"

Lunch began at 12.30 and it finished about 4.30. Surprisingly it wasn't particularly liquid, just particularly magnificent with precisely timed pauses between each course. A wonderfully gastronomic time was had by all.

I was given some extra special twentieth anniversary presents to mark the occasion. A t-shirt with appropriate anniversary embroidery, a leather document case with the word "Auldhouse" embossed on the front, and a truly superb Parker pen with a Unix joke engraved on the barrel. It is a positive pleasure to write with the pen (early drafts of some parts of this article were written with it -- it's easy to tell which parts; they're the best bits). I'm going to have to be very, very self disciplined about putting the pen away whenever I finish writing something. I don't ever want to lose it.

And now I'm back at work. It's my twenty first year as a trainer and I have a Unix course to teach. Let me see. How to begin?

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Unix System Administrator walked into a pub...

John Davey (Editor) Michael Moorcock: Into The Media Web Savoy Books
Stephen Fry The Fry Chronicles Michael Joseph
Terry Pratchett I Shall Wear Midnight Doubleday
Cherie Priest Dreadnought Tor
Cherie Priest Clementine Subterranean Press
Harry Connolly Child Of Fire Ballantine
John Boyne The Thief Of Time Black Swan
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