Archive for August, 2016

‘Allamagoosa’ is a satire on bureaucracy within the armed services — or perhaps it is a satire on bureaucracy in all big institutions. The crew of a space ship recently returned from a long period of duty find themselves faced with a formal inspection. A quick check of the inventory against what they actually have on ship reveals that one item is missing: V108 Offog. But their problem is that they have no idea what an offog could be …

… so they invent one, with predictably hilarious results. I guess that an adult with experience of detective novels would probably have guessed the solution early in the story, but I first encountered ‘Allamagoosa’ in my mid-teens, and I had no idea what an ‘offog’ could be. The solution was so brilliant, so obvious (with hindsight) and so hilarious that I wanted more books by the author: Eric Frank Russell.

In the 1970s it wasn’t difficult to find Eric Frank Russell books in the public library, so I read my way through everything I could find that he had written. (I see that many are now available on Amazon.) They make a mixed collection. There are the edge-of-the-seat thrillers: Three to Conquer (1956) — a detective story which is science fiction because the enemy are alien infiltrators from Venus and the hero is telepathic. With a Strange Device is a spy story with echoes of the film ‘The Ipcress File’ — the enemy agents can literally change your mind. Sinister Barrier (1939) and Dreadful Sanctuary (1948) are darker; both clever stories, but even as a teenager I thought that Sinister Barrier was too much of a ‘shoot ’em up’, with not enough plot for the level of violence. But it was his first book … I enjoyed Sentinels from Space (1953) as a teenager, but now find it too moralising and the leading characters too good to be true — a sign I am growing old and cynical! Re-reading Men, Martians and Machines (1955) in my twenties I felt that it had dated more than the others (the official ship photographer was still using glass plates …). All of these, of course, reflected the interests and concerns of western society at the time that they were published.

There are also the hilarious, cynical satires on bureaucracy and humans’ (or aliens’) ability to get completely tied up in their own systems and traditions. Wasp, Next of Kin and The Great Explosion are brilliantly imaginative and very, very funny.

And of course there are the collections of short stories, of which ‘Allamagoosa’ is one; some are ‘science fiction’ while those in Dark Tides (expanded in Darker Tides) are excellent fiction but weird rather than science.

Eric Frank Russell came from a British military family — his father was in the Royal Engineers and he was born near Sandhurst, so it’s not surprising that he spent so much of his writing ridiculing military bureaucracy. (The ‘built-in emergency-pack’ scene in Next of Kin is redolent of someone’s bitter personal experience of trying to get into official army-issue equipment.) Born in 1905, he died in 1978. His work convinced the teenaged-me that science fiction does not have to be computerised and full of futuristic gadgets. After all, the future will come up with much cleverer gadgets than we can think of now. But it should imagine how humans — and other creatures as appropriate — encounter and cope with extraordinary situations, and how they remain human (or whatever) while living in a completely different society.

And it’s great if science fiction can also take pot shots at the ridiculous, and see the funny side of life.



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What could be more enjoyable for a teenager studying the French Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars than a science fiction story about those same wars — but in a world where they never happened?

As a 16-year old, I loved H. Beam Piper’s short story ‘He walked around the horses’. Based on a true incident, it plays with history, suggesting other ways that events could have unfolded. As the reader progresses, s/he realises (or at least I did) that although the Revolutionary Wars were unspeakably appalling and destructive, the Europe that came out of them was more free and more recognisably modern. The story ends on a most satisfactory note: one great character of nineteenth-century history would never have achieved greatness had it not been … of course, to get the joke you need to know the history on which the story is based.

I enjoy ‘alternative history’ stories as an intellectual challenge: they focus on the causes and results of events. If this hadn’t happened, would that have come about? It’s interesting to consider what would have had to change for that not to have happened, and very often the answer is that so much would have had to be different that ‘that‘ would have happened sooner or later. Perhaps Beam Piper was wrong, and if the French Revolution had not taken place when it did something similar would have happened elsewhere in Europe shortly afterwards. Studying the French Revolution as a teenager, I considered that matters became so appalling because reform had not come earlier, and had it been delayed longer the bloodbath would have been even worse.

I don’t think many 16-year-olds in Britain study the French Revolution these days. A pity. Perhaps they still study it in North America?

Anyway, I see that the story is due to become a TV movie next year, and it’s available on Project Gutenberg — so I can go back for a re-read.

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Template cover Watchers 3

Watchers 3: The Library is now available on Amazon.com (here) and on Amazon.co.uk (here) and on any other Amazon near you. It will be free from 12-14 August, but otherwise will cost $0.99 or the equivalent in local currency.

Synopsis: Julie Smythe and her friends are Watchers, with the task of trying to stop humans ‘making complete fools of themselves’. When Julie’s daughter Caroline needs some extra books for a school assignment, she and Julie set off to find a suitable library. Their search leads them to a library under threat of destruction; but can they save the books? — or at least rescue what Caroline needs for her assignment?

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Fantasy writers are fond of libraries. We loved (and continue to love) the librarian in Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University; Liz Williams made a library the centre of events in Worldsoul … this is hardly surprising. We write books: of course we love libraries. Both of the above also ponder the fate of lost libraries (as does Connie Willis at the end of To Say Nothing of the Dog) and whether there is any way, at least in fantasy, of rescuing the books before they are destroyed.

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Cover for Watchers 3: The Flying Book.

I’ve just uploaded on to Amazon Kindle the latest Watchers story, in which Julie’s eldest daughter Caroline goes in search of a missing book so that she can finish a school assignment. The story is based on a passing comment by a colleague, which sent me in search of more information about a lost library that turned out to have been merely redistributed. One account of the library’s break up involved some books being thrown into a lake and retrieved by concerned citizens. Of course such a strange image had to get into this Watchers story somewhere!

As soon as the book is up and running on Kindle I’ll make it free for a few days. It’s very short!

(The book on the cover is a modern edition of the Septuagint, which doesn’t appear in the story but seemed appropriate in the context.)

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Readers of Kimball’s Kiss and Dragon Girls may be bemused by the frequent references to public transport. In the Brave New World of the future there will be no more public transport, right?

… Some of us think that public transport is the most effective means of transporting large numbers of people at the same time across densely populated areas (and yes, I have been on the Central Line during the London rush hour), so that answer to that first question ‘wrong’. There will probably be more public transport, and we all hope that it will be cleaner, safer, quicker and more reliable.

Railways in particular are highly adaptable to different terrains. Colin Kapp’s short story ‘The Railways up on Cannis’ explored how a railway could be built on the most hostile and intractable of planets, where all other methods of transport had failed. As a teenager I was delighted to find that one of my interests (railways) could be combined with another (science fiction). It’s great to see that this story is now easily available on Kindle: (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00F50EX5I/ref=docs-os-doi_0)

In Kimball’s Kiss, Graham Bradley grew up living close to one of the UK’s biggest preserved railways: the Great Central Railway (http://www.gcrailway.co.uk/). Originally built in the nineteenth century, the original commercial business was merged into the London North Eastern Railway in 1923, then nationalised with the rest of the UK rail network in 1948. Most of its network was closed in the 1960s as surplus to requirements (many people would argue that it wasn’t surplus to requirements, but let’s keep that discussion for another day). A group of enthusiasts raised money to reopen the section between Leicester and Loughborough. Later the section between Nottingham and Ruddington was reopened (http://www.gcrn.co.uk/), and at the time of writing it is hoped that the two sections can be joined together (http://www.gcrn.co.uk/news/work-begins/) to re-form a second line between Leicester and Nottingham. As well as providing a fun day out, the railway also does some commercial work and it’s hoped that this will expand as the railway expands.

In Kimball’s Kiss and Dragon Girls it’s assumed that the Great Central Railway has continued to provide an important public service far into the future, carrying passengers and freight and staffed by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers. Because its locomotives are low-technology they can be maintained with a hammer and a blowtorch, so the collapse of Galactic civilisation in the Great War has had relatively little impact on the railway or its business. In Dragon Girls the railway sends experts to other planets to set up railways and to advise on inner-city transport systems. Gray also calls on canal engineers to help him rebuild the transport systems of shattered planets.

The point is that future technology doesn’t have to be complex. It has to work perfectly in its context and enable its users to develop their lives; and in Dragon Girls the railway does exactly that.


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