Finally Returned! International News Gatherer's Exposés

Issue 6 - June 2001

The Trip And Other Things

Amongst sagas of delayed baggage, being rescued from hotel fires by Captain Toronto (really), flooding MacDonald's toilets, losing credit card, and fighting international bureaucracy in many forms, I made my way across Canada to a chorus of friendly advice and guidance from the Canadians I encountered, really the most pleasant people I've met yet. My vague ideas of perhaps getting enough information together to try my hand at a travel article were stumped somewhat by spending three weeks with so little money (see credit card problems) I dared do nothing but sit in my hostel dorm eating pretzels and worrying. In Vancouver I did manage to catch up with their local Science Fiction group, who were reduced to four due to having had their annual convention the weekend before, and being in the middle of a bus strike. In Calgary, Roxanne Dunning and her husband Alan showed sterling generosity by putting me up for a whole week, including driving me to mountains and bird sanctuaries, and patting my shoulder as I got upset about being on holiday with no credit card. In Toronto I met up with Amanda Lowery, better known in these pages as the film reviewer The Great White Northern Film Guru. Also in Toronto, Patrick Gliddon took me on an eye-opening tour of the city's gay neighbourhood, making me feel the real provincial (as well as weird for being heterosexual), and subjected me to a night of drinking in an "Irish" pub - a no-smoking area, a model of Johnny Walker, and a plastic English bobby? I think not. Although the gnomes hanging from the wall were spot on. Anyway, not to bore you with more details, it's a great country, a great holiday despite disasters, and I will probably be back there.

Nobody has yet come forward to offer me a job, so you would think I'd be using the time wisely, brushing up on my skills, spending a decent amount of time writing FRINGE, and so on, but I'm doing no such thing. My leaving present from Lucent included £130 worth of book vouchers, which can buy a lot of books, especially if you focus on the bargain books section. And being unemployed just wouldn't be right unless I watched Rikki Lake and Judge Judy everyday, so that takes up a fair bit of time. The number of odd people out there, well, it would make an SF con look normal. And has anybody any idea how many times the Simpsons are shown during the day?!

Anyway, due to the fact that I am also now having to pay for my photocopying, FRINGE is back to small font and single spaced lines. Enjoy. If you must.

A Brief Round Up

Allen Carr's EasyWay To Stop Smoking - well, going on seven weeks without smoking, seldom craving, I'm now looking at old photos of me with a cigarette in my hand and thinking "Did I really used to do that?" Trying to explain the method used in the book I have found to be somewhat hopeless, I won't even attempt to start here, but I'll just say that it works. Works well, with no patches or gum or substitutes.

Disturbia by Christopher Fowler is just what it sounds like - I'm still disturbed by it, and I read it back in early April. Fowler's books are never straight forward, never what you expect, and this one is no exception. Vince is a young man from a working class background determined to be a journalist, with strongly held political views that he refuses to compromise. Researching a commission, he meets and starts studying Sebastien Wells, a member of the upper class, socially the complete opposite of Vince. But Sebastien is studying Vince as well, seeing in him the perfect subject for the ultimate game in general knowledge: Vince must answer ten challenges that test his knowledge of London in just one night, and prove in this way that his world is more real than Sebastien's. I found this book intriguing, not just in its premise, but the puzzles Vince is set, and the buildup of tension as he gets nearer and nearer to dawn, and the ending, well, it's a typical Christopher Fowler ending that I still find shocking.

Fire Watch and The Miracle of Christmas and Other Stories, both collections of short stories by one of my favourite authors, Connie Willis, are just what you would expect from Willis. Good writing, tight plotting, an imagination to admire, all with touches of her favourite themes throughout - old romantic films, Christmas, hypocrisy in the middle classes. I reread Connie Willis frequently - tow more books to add to that pile.

One line summaries:

The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve - writing to slit your wrists to

Sanctuary by Faye Kellerman - also writing to slit your wrists to, but for an entirely different reason; avoid it.

Back Roads by Tawni O'Dell - oh you crazy, mixed up, zany, unwittingly poignantly amusing youth, you!

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Penman - Henry the Third? Never heard of him? I have, now.

Canadian Authors

Readers may be aware that even when on the Eastern side of the Atlantic I read a lot of Canadian authors, so whilst I was there I merely continued a trend. Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer has as its premise an accident during a scientific experiment, where everybody in the world loses consciousness and experiences two minutes of their future in about twenty years time. Apart from the total havoc caused by an entire population being unconscious for two minutes, and the number of deaths incurred, the foreknowledge everybody is now granted changes life considerably. This sounds really good, but unfortunately Sawyer doesn't quite seem to have done it justice. It is a difficult subject matter, I acknowledge that, but he didn't have to tackle it if he wasn't up to the task. Rather than exploring what a preordained world would be like, the characters soon demonstrate that in fact this future was just one of the possibilities, thus neutralising what I saw as the whole point of the book. We then end up concentrating on one character whose vision had him recently murdered during the flashforward, and the book becomes a thriller type affair, with a 2001-esque strange dream sequence thrown in for good measure. Please. Robert J. Sawyer has always had trouble with endings, in the words of a book seller I was talking to in Toronto, "he kinda loses it", but in this book that whole second half was lost. I'm annoyed.

My friend Roxanne Dunning introduced me to an author I hadn't heard of, James Alan Gardner. The two books of his that I read, Commitment Hour and Expendable , show a talent for writing, an ability to come up with good ideas, and a definite authorial voice, but the more I think about these books, the less sure I become that they are actually good. The characters, for instance, are somewhat two-dimensional and the denouements are ... unsatisfying? Unconvincing? I'm not really sure. Any, as I said, the ideas are good. In Commitment Hour , Tabor Cove is a community with a unique population - from birth until the age of twenty, its inhabitants alternate each year as male and female, until on Commitment Day when they are twenty years of age, they decide which sex, male, female, or both, they would like to spend the rest of their life in. The book follows Fullin, currently male, and his friend Cappie, female, on the last twenty four hours they will spend before finally committing. Strangers have come to Tabor Cove this day as well, and as well as Fullin and Cappie having to explore their own relationship and decide individually and together how they will be happiest, these strangers are trying to understand the miracle of Tabor Cove. The blurb tells us that the book "dares to pose critical questions about the human condition" - not quite, but it is a relatively interesting study of gender biases, and also of a community where everybody had experienced life from both sides.

Expendable is roughly set in the same universe, although only at one point does this become apparent, leading me to suspect that other of Gardner's books will bring both books together. Because of the danger inherent in being the first humans to explore new planets, and the loss of morale of the crew when well-liked, good-looking spacefarers are killed (usually in mysterious and probably disgusting ways), the Explorer Corps are comprised of individuals with disfiguring problems, huge birthmarks for instance. These faults could be corrected, but the military apply pressure to make sure that intelligent, physically sound individuals with problems like these are left alone, and eventually enlisted into the Corps. Morale is so much higher if the person who died planet-side is ugly. The Corps call themselves Expendables. This is all the setup for a planet-based adventure, which whilst quite exciting, isn't half as interesting as the idea. I know for sure that at least one other Gardner book looks at other members of the Expendables, so I'll be looking out for that.

Children or Adults?

The Harry Potter books are much-hyped as children's books that adults will love, and for this reason I have been avoiding reading them - I'll wait for the frenzy to die down, and hopefully that way guarantee an open mind. But I really love children's fantasy, better written often than adult fantasy, and still keep many of the books that I read when I was a child on my shelves, for rereading when I'm down. Over my holidays I picked up some books that could probably be children's books, but of a much darker calibre than I'm led to believe the Potter books are.

Firstly, Philip Pullman has completed the His Dark Materials trilogy with the publication of The Amber Spyglass , and having heard nothing but good about this series I decided to give it a try. Starting with Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it is called on the side of the Atlantic I bought it on) we are following the adventures of Lyra, a young girl who has been brought up in an Oxford College similar to one in our world, but with startlingly imaginative differences. Everybody's soul, in this world, is external from them and takes the form of an animal, known as a daemon. Research is being done into the effects of separating a child from its daemon, rendering it essentially soulless - there is probably a Deep Meaning in this which I have missed. The second book of the series, The Subtle Knife, moves to our own world, where Will and his mother are being chased by mysterious men set on discovering what happened to Will's long lost father. Will escapes into yet another world, meets Lyra, and finds that their searches coincide. It is a much darker book even than Northern Lights, so much so that I would have reservations letting children read it at all, and certainly not below the ago of twelve. Which is a shame, since Lyra is a great female role-model, one I wish that I could have had growing up, strong-willed and independent, yet quite happily a girl. Anyway. I am waiting for the third book of the series to be released in paperback before I get it, unless anyone has a copy they would like to lend me. I'm looking forward to it.

The other nominally-children's book I read recently is Prospero's Children by Jan Siegel. Anyone who read The Dark is Rising as a child and wished that there were more books like it, run to your nearest bookseller and buy this. The first half thrilled me senseless, I have seldom been so enthusiastic about a book. The second half is not as good, there is a sense of trying to finish off a first novel, but still well worth the effort. Again not for the very young (I'd put the age limit as maybe fourteen this time), this is a beautifully told coming-of-age story involving secret keys, Atlantis, mermaids and witchcraft. I've heard it has already been remaindered - even more reason to buy it.

Closing Moments

The usual things are happening at the usual times this month. My birthday is coming up, no celebrations because I can't be bothered making the effort, however anybody who wants to shower me with presents is more than welcome: I'm looking for book vouchers, a job, and a parade of cute guys. The Dublin Sci-Fi Club continues meeting upstairs in Bowes Pub the first Tuesday of every month. Next month's theme has still not been announced, but the raffle has become a fixture, bring your collection. See you next month!

Copyright Fionna O'Sullivan, 2001.
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