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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Via Amplificus)


I have long been a fan of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and therefore when I found out that Transit New Zealand were extending the Auckland motorway system across the bottom of my street, I double-checked the position of my towel and began to watch for yellow bulldozers.

There was a knock on my door.

"Hello," said one of the people standing there. "We are from Transit New Zealand and we need to purchase 5.18 metres of your front garden in order to widen the road."

"Just a minute," I said and fetched a tape measure.

"Are you aware," I pointed out, "that my entire front garden comprises only 5.2 metres of somewhat crabby grass? After you take your lump away, I’ll be able to mow my lawn with nail clippers."

"Ah, yes," they said. "That is true. But think of the benefits! You will have an unparalleled opportunity to observe the world as it races past at 70 kph mere inches from your widow. You will be able to see the New Zealand hoon in his natural state protected only by a thin sheet of glass."

"I feel that this is less than desirable," I said.

"How about we buy the whole house instead?" asked the other one.


In order to agree on a fair purchase price for the house, I had to get a valuer’s report. They too commisioned a valuer and the final price would be based on both reports. The valuers came and measured and inspected. They poked the walls, sucked their breath through clenched teeth, shook their heads (each had two), made copious notes, and charged me $300.

"Before I make my report," said one, "is there anything you want to tell me that I don’t know about?" I was somewhat taken aback.

"What don’t you know?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I don’t know," he said.

"Do you know anything about Java programming?"


"Java is a write once run anywhere programming language that compiles to p-codes rather than native object code," I began.

"I think I’d better be going now," he said. "I’ve got everything I need. I’ll have the report ready in about a week."

Each valuer gave an estimate of a fair price for the house. Unfortunately the two estimates were $20,000 apart. It must be easy to be a valuer. All you need is a built in random number generator.

Transit New Zealand put them together in a locked room and refused to let them out until they compromised. After several days of conflict, one raised his estimate by $13,000 and one lowered his by $7,000. The final result was in my favour, but it still wasn’t as much as I would have liked. The alternative, however, was even worse. I accepted the offer.

I intend to move to Wellington where I will live in a quiet street in a quiet suburb a long way away from any hint of a motorway. Doubtless my house will then fall victim to a passing earthquake instead.

In the meantime, there are always books to read…

Richard Tomlinson was an MI6 agent until (by his account at least) he was unjustly dismissed from the service. His efforts to clear his name brought him into direct confrontation with the service and when he attempted to write a book about his time with the service, their wrath knew no bounds. They hounded him, quite literally, all the way across the world. The Big Breach is his autobiography. It tells of his recruitment, his training, the missions he undertook, his eventual dismissal and the witch hunt that followed.

To begin with, the story is very gung ho Boys Own Paper stuff. But it quickly grows darker as the paranoia of the secret world strengthens its grip. You begin to realise that John Le Carré and Len Deighton weren’t exaggerating at all (indeed, perhaps they didn’t go far enough). It is a frightening book – the thought that a Government department could act so ruthlessly against one of its own is unnerving. If they treat their own that way, how will they treat the rest of us?

My only complaint about the book is that Tomlinson still seems to be suffering from the after-effects of his bureaucratic past and appears to be completely unable to write a sentence without including an acronym in it. There is a glossary in the front of the book, but it only includes a small subset of the initialisms that he uses. This acronymphomania sometimes overwhelms the senses, and meaning vanishes from the page.

But that aside, this remains an important, and scary book.

Robert Rankin is back with Web Site Story (he really is good at titles, isn’t he?). In this novel (for want of a better word) he takes the hoary old idea of a computer virus that infects humans and runs with it. But this being Robert Rankin, nothing is what it seems and nothing matches your preconceptions. As always the plot (such as it is) is a complete irrelevance. All that matters are the silly jokes, not to mention the running gags. Ooops! I wasn’t supposed to mention the running gags.

If you like Robert Rankin and have a sneaking fondness for Brentford, you’ll love this book. If you’ve never read Robert Rankin, this is a good one to start with. Just don’t expect it to make sense.

The new Connie Willis novel Passage is by turns both brilliant and annoying. Joanna Lander is engaged in research into near death experiences. There seems to be a certain commonality in the stories told by those who survive their near death trauma. A tunnel, a bright light, even a noise. By examining the stories she hopes to gain some insight into the death experience. She teams up with Dr Richard Wright, a brilliant young neurologist who has a mechanism for simulating the near death experience under controlled laboratory conditions and together they push back the boundaries of knowledge. Their aim is to understand the process of dying sufficiently well that perhaps they can delay, or even reverse it.

The ideas are epic in scope and Connie Willis treads sure footedly into some very speculative territory. In that respect at least, the novel is first rate. It has profound things to say about the process of dying and ingenious ideas about the mechanisms involved.

But Joanna Lander is without a doubt the most intensely annoying viewpoint character I have ever come across. She is so dysfunctional I have no idea how she manages even to get out of bed in the morning and put her knickers on without breaking a leg. She never answers her phone (and misses important messages as a result); she makes appointments and doesn’t keep them. She engages people in conversation but doesn’t listen to what they say and she never gives them a chance to tell her the (often important) things that they have on their mind because she is too busy yacking away about her own concerns. Good grief – she can’t even organise herself sufficiently to get to the video store in time to hire a movie! I kept wanting to reach into the book and pick her up by the scruff of the neck and yell into her face "SIT DOWN! SLOW DOWN! SHUT UP AND LISTEN FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!!!!"

Not that it would have done any good. She is so wrapped up in her own affairs that she probably wouldn’t even have noticed.

The woman is so enormously aggravating that she destroyed a large part of the magic of the book for me. And that is a shame, for it truly is a stupendous achievement – a genuinely original novel with many astonishingly brilliant insights and speculations. It will probably win lots of awards, and deservedly so.

By the way – don’t read the last two pages. The saccharinely sweet ending is nauseating. Trust me – tear the last two pages out and throw them away.

Stuart Jeffries was a television child. It was always there in the corner of the lounge, always turned on. For the whole of his life it has represented knowledge, information and entertainment. Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy is his analysis of just what television means to the generations that have never known life without it. It’s a psychological and sociological investigation as well as a critical analysis of many important programmes. And it is also screamingly funny. Jeffries is particularly witty on the psychological implications of the closing credits in Andy Pandy and his scathing comments on Nerys Hughes’ acting abilities in The Liver Birds are a never ending joy.

Terry Pratchett has grown sick and tired of having fans point out contradictions in the Discworld. There is a species of nit-picker that simply cannot resist analysing the minutiae of Ankh-Morepork, the doings of Death and the intimate habits of witches. These anal beings then take great delight in highlighting inconsistencies between books. Terry is fed up with them, and so he has written Thief of Time. It is now clear that, as Terry has insisted all along, there are no contradictions in the Discworld; there are no inconsistencies at all. Everything happened exactly as written down. So shut up, damn you.

Time is a resource and it has to be managed. The History Monks are in charge of time on the Discworld, and by and large they do a good job of managing it. But now the world’s first truly accurate clock is being built and Lao Tzu and his apprentice Lobsang Ludd are faced with a problem…

For once, the book has quite a complex plot driving it. Terry isn’t very good at plots; normally he just noodles around, but this one is very tightly written. There are no laugh out loud moments (there seldom are in his more serious works) but there are lots of lovely moments – I particularly enjoyed Ronnie, the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse; the one who left before they got famous. He has quite a large part to play. The quiet piss-take of Eastern philosophy is also a beautifully written theme that permeates the whole novel.

All in all, a pretty good Discworld book. And if it does succeed in shutting up the fine tooth combers, I for one will be very pleased indeed.

Kim Wilkins is an Australian horror writer who is making quite a name for herself. She burst onto the scene in a splatter of gore towards the end of the twentieth century with her first novel The Inferno. The viewpoint character is a rock musician called Lisa Sheehan who plays with a group called 747. The group’s fans are known as Frequent Flyers and they faithfully come to all the gigs. Lisa is quite horrified when she finds that while she was singing at one gig, a Frequent Flyer was being horribly murdered and mutilated in a forest just outside of town. She starts having nightmares and her dreams are invaded by memories that aren’t her own but which seem to be those of Elizabeth Moreton, a lady from the early seventeenth century.

Soon Lisa becomes completely involved in Elizabeth’s life and becomes convinced that she is Elizabeth’s reincarnation. A series of regressions into Elizabeth’s life and times reveals that Elizabeth is the unmarried niece of a wealthy landowner. She has a reputation as a healer and is very knowledgeable about herbs. When her cousin Mirabel marries Gilbert Lewis, she soon comes to realise that Lewis is the key to much forbidden knowledge. Mirabel is weak and ineffectual. Elizabeth despises her. She has an affair with Lewis and he initiates her into the secret world. She gains many powers, takes part in many hideous rites. Neither she nor Lewis are strangers to death and mutilation.

More Frequent Flyers are murdered. Is there a psychopath stalking the group? They wanted fame, but as musicians, not as ghouls. The pressure starts to drive a wedge between them.

It becomes clear to Lisa that just as she is Elizabeth’s reincarnation, so her friend Karin is the reincarnation of Mirabel. Where is Gilbert Lewis in all this? What is his connection to the murders and what motivates them?

The book moves easily between modern day Melbourne and seventeenth century England; the dynamics of life in a rock band and life as a witch. The stories of the two lives mingle terrifyingly. The denouement (when it comes) is breath taking. The novel is scary, gory and frightening. Critics have compared Kim Wilkins to Poppy Z. Brite and there are a lot of obvious parallels. She is definitely a writer to watch.

Her second novel Grimoire tells of the life of Peter Owling, an ambitious warlock in Victorian London. He designed a book of shadows to summon and control a demon. But Owling failed in his dealings with the demon and was killed. The book was divided into four pieces and scattered to the far reaches of the colonies at the ends of the Earth.

The story proper concerns a group of academics in Melbourne who have spent their lives searching for the fragments of the book. If they can reassemble it, they plan to summon and bind the demon and gain, they hope, eternal life. On the surface, these academics lead an ordinary university life doing ordinary university things. One of these is to supervise a group of graduate students researching their theses. However the students start to realise that something is going on behind the scenes, and soon their supervisors plans start to unravel.

The novel is not as satisfactory as The Inferno. The book lacks the convoluted plot of the first novel and is therefore much more predictable. Also the theme of souls in peril feels rather thin after the gory excesses of The Inferno. That does not make it a bad book – it is beautifully written and constructed with lots of lovely bits of business. But it still comes off second best in comparison.

Mike Resnick’s new novel The Outpost is set in a bar out on the far frontier of the universe. Here the heroes gather: Catastrophe Baker, Three-Gun Max, Gravedigger Gaines and many others. In Part One of the book they talk and they tell tall tales. As the levels in the bottles fall, the tales become taller, the heroes more heroic. Meanwhile, outside the Outpost, aliens are invading the system and the human navy is defeated. Eventually the heroes decide to interest themselves in the battle. Damned aliens.

The second part of the book shows what happens when the heroes take on the aliens. In Part Three, the survivors return to The Outpost and boast to each other of their great deeds. Since we, the readers, have the truth of these matters from Part Two to compare to the tall tales of Part Three, it makes interesting reading to say the least, and throws much sceptical light on the deeds of derring do reported in Part One.

Mike Resnick has performed the interesting feat of writing a book of absolutely ridiculous stories, many of them trite and trivial beyond belief (sixty foot tall Neptunian Princesses?), and having them add up to a considerably greater sum than the whole of the parts. Without ever once mentioning anything deep and meaningful he has written a deep and meaningful book. By doing nothing except pull your leg, he manages also to pull your intellect. The book is both an artistic triumph and a shaggy dog. Brilliant!

Lord of the Silent is another Amelia Peabody mystery by Elizabeth Peters. The events take place immediately after those described in He Shall Thunder in the Sky, but there is no need to have read the earlier novel to enjoy this one. It is 1915 and Cairo is not the city it once was. It has been transformed into an armed camp. Enemy agents abound. Archaeology becomes difficult. Ramses has turned down a request from British Intelligence to undertake another mission for them. Instead, he and his wife Nefret are looking forward to nothing more exciting than the investigation of ancient ruins. However Amelia discovers a fresh corpse in the rubble of the tomb and lo! The game’s afoot once more.

The plot is convoluted. Death, abduction and assault follow the family wherever they go. The jewels of an ancient queen are stolen and an old nemesis stalks the night. Wonderful stuff!

Extreme Weather Events is a collection of twelve short pieces of fiction by Wellington writer Tim Jones. Of these I would estimate that at least five are not short stories at all, but the synopses of novels, and they sit very uneasily in the framework they’ve been shoe-horned into.

Maria and the Tree, the first story in the collection, is perhaps the most blatant of these. Maria lives in a time when water is rationed. By a trick, she manages to obtain her neighbour’s ration as well as her own, and she uses it to nurture a tree that she brought back with her from the war zone. This is a criminal act which is eventually discovered and Maria and the tree are both in dire straits.

The story starts quite close to Maria. We experience her feelings, think her thoughts, take part in her actions. But as the story progresses the writing becomes more and more impersonal; the camera pulls back and the point of view becomes more distant. Longer and longer periods of time are dismissed in fewer and fewer sentences. Events are narrated in reported speech like that of a Greek chorus, rather than being enacted in front of us. The last two paragraphs cover (probably) a century or so and don’t involve Maria at all.

These are all symptoms of a story that is far too long for its word count. It is full of wonderful images and tantalising hints. There is a huge amount of material in the back story. How did the world get into this mess? What happens to society when the stark inevitability of its fate becomes obvious? Even the vignette of Maria and her tree (which is all the actual story that we get) feels rushed and lacking in detail. I want to read the novel that it summarises, damnit! It looks like it would be a first class tale of doom and gloom (the ending holds out no hope at all). It would be a powerful and very moving work. As it is, it is merely a tale too rushed in the telling.

Wintering Over is much the same. Again we get only a vignette. The situation in the world at large, which is of paramount importance to the characters wintering over in isolation at the South Pole, is barely sketched in. The very last sentence encompasses about six months elapsed time. There were obviously many hardships suffered by the characters both before and after the events of the story itself (not to mention the disaster that seems to have overtaken the rest of the world as well). But we never get to share them. We should – it would be a novel well worth reading.

The New Land is a gorgeous little story about bureaucracy, bullshit and the national character. Flensing is an eerie and very satisfying horror story. The Kiwi Contingent is a lovely summing up of the New Zealand culture in very science fictional terms. My Friend the Volcano is an ingenious tale of a vulcanologist with a bio-chip implant that lets her experience the totality of an eruption. I didn’t understand The Pole at all. Amundsen and Scott have a rather surreal encounter at the South Pole.

The Lizard is another episode from a longer work. It is pretty much complete in itself, but it leaves so much unstated that it is ultimately a bit unsatisfying. The narrator remembers clouds and water and streams that ran across the ground. All that has gone now. Why? What happened? And how, in less than a generation, has the weird ritual that is the central event of the story evolved? Where did the Lizards come from? Given the similarity of some of the language and descriptions, it is possible that this is another scene from the same world in which Maria and the Tree was set.

Tour Party, Late Afternoon also feels extracted from a longer work. Time seems to have stopped, and a tour party is walking around a city moments before a disaster is due to strike the unsuspecting inhabitants. The tour guide lectures quite impersonally about the small triumphs and tragedies that they observe, but says little about the larger disaster that looms. Who are the tour party? Why are they there? What will happen? These and many other questions remain unresolved. As it stands, it is merely an anecdote, not a story. It needs fleshing out. Exactly the same can be said about Black Box. The black boxes appear over New Zealand. A bird flies in and never re-emerges. Buildings start to regress. Long demolished structures reappear, giving way eventually to a primeval landscape. One man enters and investigates.

The Man Who Loved Maps is about a compulsive/obsessive. He truly does love maps – they are his whole reason for existence and when his carefully hoarded collection vanishes from his room he is understandably upset. The events that follow are again far too rushed. This one is too slight to be a novel, but it certainly deserves to be at least a novelette. Another 20,000 words would help it enormously.

The Temple in the Matrix is a beautifully written Lovecraftian homage.

In many ways this is a frustrating collection. Tim Jones is an excellent writer with clear and original ideas. But he doesn’t give his material room to breathe. He attempts too much in too short a space. The work is too claustrophobic. He needs to relax, to spread his wings and treat his material with the respect (and the length) that it so richly deserves.

Richard Tomlinson The Big Breach Harper Collins
Robert Rankin Web Site Story Doubleday
Connie Willis Passage Bantam
Stuart Jeffries Mrs Slocombe’s Pussy Flamingo
Terry Pratchett Thief of Time Doubleday
Kim Wilkins The Inferno Oriel
Kim Wilkins Grimoire Gollancz
Mike Resnick The Outpost Tor
Elizabeth Peters Lord of the Silent Morrow
Tim Jones Extreme Weather Events HeadworX

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