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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (inundatio maxima)

Nothing happened to me this month, except that we had quite a lot of rain and my socks got very wet when Jake and I went for our morning walks. So I thought I’d tell you a story about rain. Those of you who work with computers might find some of this horribly familiar...

Preparing for the Flood

The ark was far too large to be built on land and so Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth had built it directly in the water, right where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers met each other. Noah hurried along the deck, clutching a sheaf of papyrus documents and trying not to trip over the scavenging chickens that kept pecking at his toe nails. He was late for the weekly progress report meeting and time was precious.

The meeting room was on deck C, just across from the elephant enclosure. His sons were already there. Shem and Japheth were talking quietly together. Ham was sitting in a corner by himself poking moodily at the beads on his laptop abacus.

"Sorry I'm late," said Noah, "but the printer was playing up again. It took me ages to get the latest project plan printed out."

"What's wrong with the stupid thing?" asked Shem.

"It's a printer," said Noah. "That's what's wrong with it. They never work properly. The sooner we get the papyrusless office that they've been promising us for the last twenty years, the better I'll be pleased."

"Did you try running the spring down and then turning the crank to wind it up again?" asked Japheth.

"Of course I did," snapped Noah. He handed out some of the papyrus sheets. "Here's the latest Gantt Chart," he said. "We've got just over a year until Deluge Day, or D-Day as the CEO keeps calling it in his memos, and we've still got quite a lot of work ahead of us. If you look closely at the chart you'll see that we're falling behind on the critical path. The rate determining step is animal acquisition and we're doing really badly with it." He handed out some more sheets of papyrus. "Here's a list of outstanding animals. I'd like you all to get on to it right away."

Shem had been examining the animal list while his father was talking and he clearly wasn't happy with it. "Come on, dad," he said, "this is just silly. I simply don't believe that there's such an animal as a quokka."

"Quokka," murmured Ham, using his laptop abacus to interrogate the master database. "Here it is – it's a small and rather ugly marsupial that lives only on Rottnest Island, just off the coast of West Australia."

"Australia!" exclaimed Shem. "No wonder we're falling behind schedule, dad. Have you any idea how long it takes to transport animals from Australia? Our shipping agent lives in Alice Springs and he's quite useless. These days he spends all his time at Uluru. Apparently his pet dingo ate somebody's baby."

"And where are we going to keep the quokkas, assuming we ever get any?" asked Japheth. "The marsupial deck is already full to overflowing with wombats. They breed like..." he struggled for a simile. "..like wombats," he finished lamely. "I'll swear every single one of them is born pregnant. We simply don't have any room for the quokkas."

"I'm sure you'll think of something," said Noah vaguely. "Ham, what have you got to report?"

"I'm not at all happy with my assignment," said Ham. "We're a very strict Jewish family, so I really can't think what possessed you to call me Ham in the first place. But giving me the pigs to look after on top of that is just adding insult to injury. It simply won't do."

"Take it up with your mother," said Noah vaguely. "It was all her idea."

"How can I?" asked Ham. "She's away in Thebes negotiating for aardvarks."

"Just try and make the best of it," said Noah. "You're much better at pigs than the rest of us." He consulted his papyrus sheets again. "Now," he said, "the next item on the agenda is a complaint we've received from the environment protection people. They tell us we're going to have to stop mucking the animals out directly into the river. It simply can't cope with the load. The water isn't swimmable any more. It isn't even wadeable. The country's clean, green image is looking a bit tarnished and er... brown."

"The water tastes rather funny when you drink it as well," said Shem. "And sometimes you have to spit out lumpy bits. But what other choice do we have? You can't stop animals from doing what comes naturally and when you've got as many animals as we have, there's an awful lot of it to get rid of."

"Perhaps we should invest in more dung beetles," suggested Japheth.

"Maybe we could send it all up river to Babylon," said Ham. "Nebuchadnezzar is constantly complaining about how much fertilizer the hanging gardens need."

"Good idea," said Noah, and he made a note. "OK, that's all I have to say. Let's call the meeting to a close so that we can all get on with our jobs."

They made their way back to the top deck of the ark. Shem was in the lead. He climbed out through the hatch on to the deck and then almost immediately he turned round and came back again. "Dad," he said, sounding a bit worried, "it's started to rain and it's coming down really heavily. Do you think that D-Day has come a bit earlier than planned?"

Noah stared at his Gantt Chart in consternation. "I hope not," he said. "That would throw everything completely off track."

Ham's laptop abacus began to make rapid clicking noises. "It's a memo from the CEO," said Ham. "He says not to worry, this is just a bit of a practice run. The number two reservoir was starting to overflow so the CEO is taking the opportunity to drain off the excess. It will only be a small deluge and we'll be OK. Atlantis is going to sink though."

"That's a shame," said Japheth. "I always liked Atlantis. Great beaches!"

"Well, look on the bright side," said Ham. "At least we can cross unicorns off the animal list."

* * * *

The latest book in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from the University of Illinois Press is by Gary Westfahl, and it examines the stories of Arthur C. Clarke. Mostly I found myself agreeing with Westfahl’s conclusions, though I didn’t always share his reasons for arriving at them. For example, one criticism that has been levelled again and again about Clarke’s writing is that his characters come across as shallow and formulaic. I’ve never thought that. To me, his characters have always seemed very alive, very rounded and very believable (though, on occasion, more than a little odd, self-centered and eccentric). I was pleased to find that Westfahl feels the same as I do, though he seems quite blind to the humour that, for me, has always been one of the things that makes Clarke’s characters stand out from the crowd. Westfahl is rightly dismissive of the juvenile humour that infests Clarke’s juvenilia – some of those early stories are excruciatingly embarrassing – but he seems to have missed the humour that is scattered throughout Clarke’s mature works. Possibly this is because Westfahl is American and Clarke’s humour is very dry, very understated and very, very British. Blink, and you’ll miss it.

There are three aspects of Clarke’s fiction that you have to come to grips with if you are going to fully understand his work. First, and most obviously, is Clarke’s dedication to science and technology. He is thought of as very much a hard SF writer and neither Westfahl nor I would argue with that conclusion. It is central to his writing. But there is so much more to him than just a simple desire to get the science right. He wanted to get the religious aspects of his stories right as well. He himself was an atheist, but all his life long he remained very interested in questions of religion and he poked and prodded at those questions again and again and again. By his own admission, he regarded 2001 – A Space Odyssey as a deeply religious movie (and book). If nothing else, Clarke knew how to ask interesting questions. And sometimes he even came asymptotically close to providing answers to some of them as well, albeit answers that were perhaps more than a little unconventional!

Finally there’s the question of Clarke’s sexuality. He was homosexual and that was quite a risky thing to be in Britain in the puritanical 1950s. Westfahl suggests that the prosecution of Alan Turing in 1952 scared Clarke a lot. There but for the grace of god… Westfahl cites that prosecution as a major motivation for Clarke relocating himself to Sri Lanka, where attitudes were a lot more relaxed. He also suggests that Clarke’s brief marriage (he and his wife separated after six months, though they remained married for more than a decade) was simply an attempt to make himself seem more respectable, more normal, if you like, to the establishment. Westfahl makes a good case for the marriage being deliberate window dressing, though we’ll probably have to wait until 2038 when Clarke’s private diaries will be released to the world to find out what Clarke himself actually thought of the whole affair.

But be that as it may, Clarke’s sexuality is reflected again and again in his stories, though generally it is referenced indirectly. However it is noteworthy that in The Songs of Distant Earth, the novel that Clarke himself regarded as his best work, the homosexuality is quite blatant and is a vital part of the plot. And that novel, of course, comes from Clarke’s later period when the mood of the times had changed and he clearly felt quite safe about openly discussing things that he had once kept to himself.

Westfahl also discusses the merit (and otherwise) of Clarke’s collaborations with other authors. By and large, Clarke had little or nothing to do with the writing of those books. He simply supplied an idea and let the other author do all the hard work of writing the story. So it probably makes more sense to regard those books as belonging much more to the collaborative author than to Clarke himself. Generally, that’s just what Westfahl does. There were exceptions though – Westfahl points out that Clarke was closely involved in his  collaborations with both Stephen Baxter and Frederik Pohl and therefore, quite rightly, Westfahl examines these books in rather more detail.

Westfahl’s book is a first class discussion of Clarke’s writing. Anyone who is at all interested in Clarke’s body of work really should read it. It is full of interesting ideas and observations and if it makes you take a longer, more detailed look at some of your favourite stories, then so much the better!

Robert Conroy (1938-2014) was a master of the alternate history genre – all but two of his many books fall into that category. 1945 is set in the eponymous year. It assumes that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not force a Japanese surrender and the war continued, culminating with an invasion of the Japanese mainland islands by the Americans.

At first glance, that sounds like a silly premise. But I enjoyed the book quite a lot and so I went digging into the actual historical details, and what I found surprised me. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, the Emperor did indeed want to end the conflict. However there was a coup attempt made by top military officials who were opposed to the idea of surrender. In our world, that coup failed and Japan sued for peace. In the world of the novel, the coup succeeded and the war continued.

In other words, Conroy found a perfectly legitimate reason why, in another world, the war against Japan had to be fought to the bitter end. He does a very good job of portraying the fear, anguish and sheer bloody difficulty faced by the American troops who have to invade the home islands. And, cleverly, he shows us how the continuation of the war felt to both the Japanese soldiers and the civilians who also found themselves caught up in it.

The book does not make for pleasant reading – the invasion of the Japanese homeland would not have been a pleasant military campaign – but the story caught my imagination and really that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Conroy has done a superb job and, in my opinion, has carved out a niche for himself deep inside Harry Turtledove territory.

Conroy’s novel Interregnum is not an alternate history story unless you want to stretch the definition of alternate history a bit. It’s an "after the nuclear holocaust" novel. It wasn’t published during Conroy’s lifetime. It was found among his papers after he died and was published posthumously as an ebook. As far as I can tell, it has never had a printed edition.

It’s not a bad book, but the fact that it never found a publisher during his lifetime suggests that it isn’t all that good either. In fact it turns out to be a very routine example of the genre. There’s nothing in it that makes it stand out from the crowd.

Chris Beckett won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2013 for his novel Dark Eden. It’s quite a fascinating book. The story itself is pure cliché, but Becket rises above the common tropes and has written a quite profound, and at times quite moving, story.

The premise is very simple. Six generations before the story begins, two people, Tommy and Angela, were marooned on a world called (somewhat ironically) Eden. Now, 163 years later, incestuous procreation has created a small family prone to genetic disorders and with a slowly decaying language and culture as memories of the lessons taught by Tommy and Angela are distorted by time. The stories of what Tommy and Angela said and did (and why they said and did those things) have become vague and confused. The sacred memories and artefacts are now the basis of quasi-religious rituals. Any real meaning and significance that they might once have had has disappeared. One of the elders actually met Tommy and Angela. Of course, he was very young when they were very old. Now he himself is very old and senile and his childhood memories, coloured and confused by his dementia cannot be relied upon. But there are no other authorities to consult...

Eden is anything but a paradise world. The family live in a valley hemmed in on all sides by frozen peaks. There is nowhere for them to go and population pressures are making their small enclave more and more difficult to live in.

Becket plays the science fictional game of inventing an environment very skilfully and very fairly. The flora, fauna and geology of Eden are brilliantly described. But that’s just window dressing, something to provide a stage on which Beckett can explore his real concerns – the gradual loss of language, and culture over time and the ways in which small, isolated groups cope (or fail to cope) both with their environment and with themselves.

The book invites comparisons with the linguistic experiments of Anthony Burgess and the sociological concerns of William Golding (it owes a huge debt to Golding’s Lord of the Flies). But there is no doubt that it can hold its head up proudly in their company. Stuart Kelly, a reviewer for the Guardian newspaper called Dark Eden "...a superior piece of theologically nuanced science fiction" and I can’t think of a better way of summing up the book than that. The phrase describes Dark Eden perfectly.

I’d never heard of David Sedaris until I caught the tail end of an interview he did with Kim Hill on her Saturday morning programme. They appeared to be talking about a book with the intriguing title  Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, and Sedaris himself had a delightfully quirky way of expressing himself. Then the interview was over and I thought no more about it.

Eventually I stumbled across a copy of that oddly titled book, together with a few others by David Sedaris. I also found some BBC recordings of Sedaris reading from his own books. I was quickly hooked, and it wasn’t long before I turned into a rabid Sedaris fan!

Sedaris is a sophisticated and cosmopolitan American of Greek descent who has lived in both France and England as well as in his native America. His oddly titled books are collections of autobiographical essays that deal with his interactions with his strangely eccentric family, the jobs he has had, his education, the drugs he has used, the obsessive behaviours he has observed in himself and others and his homosexuality. Sedaris has been openly gay for many years and has a stable, very long term and very loving relationship with his partner Hugh Hamrick who also has a starring role in many of the essays. Given some of the things that Sedaris says about him, I can only assume that Hugh must be a very tolerant man...

Generally speaking, the essays are extremely funny. On more than one occasion I found myself convulsed with fits of laughter. This can be embarrassing when you are out walking your dog with your earbuds plugged in listening to Sedaris reading a story to you. Other dogs and people give you very funny looks and quickly cross the road so as to get well away from the giggling lunatic they see staggering towards them.

But Sedaris can be serious as well, when he wants to be, and when the situation requires it. His essay on the suicide of his sister is particularly moving.

There is no doubt that Sedaris’ essays are much more than just a simple reporting of the facts of his life. Certainly there are facts buried in the heart of his stories, but he definitely isn’t afraid to twist and exaggerate them for the sake of the joke. It’s easy for me to recognise the technique because I do it myself, though I freely admit that Sedaris is much better at it than I am.

A very peculiar, but at the same time quite practical, side effect of the way in which Sedaris chooses to write his essays is that publishers remain perennially confused as to whether his "stories" should be labelled as fact or fiction. Depending on the publisher, you might find either or both labels applied. The situation isn’t helped by Sedaris’ own cheerful admission that sometimes he does indeed write pure fiction. Generally it is obvious which pieces are his fictional works. But not always. Perhaps his books should all be supplied with a management decision making tool – a coin for the readers to toss whenever they find themselves confused by the issue.

I remain perplexed as to whether I prefer to read the stories to myself in cold print or whether I prefer to listen to Sedaris reading the stories to me. He has a wonderful deadpan delivery that adds greatly to the humour, and I must confess that now that I have heard him, I still hear his voice in my head even when I read the stories to myself. Why don’t you seek him out and make up your own mind? I guarantee that you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.


Gary Westfahl Modern Masters of SF: Arthur C. Clarke University of Illinois Press
Robert Conroy 1945 Ballantine
Robert Conroy Interregnum Kindle
Chris Beckett Dark Eden Broadway Books
David Sedaris Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls Little, Brown and Company
David Sedaris Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim Little, Brown and Company
David Sedaris Me Talk Pretty One Day Little, Brown and Company
     
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