A book review: ‘Deadline’ and ‘Dead Duck’, by Patrick Macnee

26 10 2015

Alongside Thunderbirds, the most formative TV show of my childhood years would have to be The Avengers (the British incarnation, that is, not the Transatlantic pretenders), in particular the halcyon years in which John Steed (Patrick Macnee) was partnered with Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). So you’ll perhaps understand why these two books caught my eye …

Deadline_and Dead_Duck

I chanced upon these novels — originally published in 1965 and 1966, and written by the recently-departed ‘Steed’ himself — a few months ago, in Glenbrook’s excellent Blue Dragon bookshop. (Macnee credits Peter Leslie for help in writing the first book, Deadline; there’s no such acknowledgement in the second book, but Leslie is bylined with Macnee in the copyright attribution of each book, so it’s probably fair to treat both books as collaborations of some degree or another.) Of course, it’s only Macnee’s name that appears on the covers.

And while we’re on the covers: lest these come across as tacky tie-ins (and the editions I bought are mid-90s re-releases; I will concede that, purely from a design perspective, there is a certain degree of ‘could do better’ about them), I’ll clarify that these are, unambiguously, Steed-and-Peel-era-Avengers novels, describing adventures significantly different (as far as I can establish) from any which featured during the run of Steed-and-Peel Avengers TV episodes. And for what they are, they’re not bad. There are, perhaps, some allowances which must be made: a degree of casual, mid-sixties sexism is nowadays very difficult to excuse (women described as ‘girls’ or otherwise objectified); there is, across both books, a very heavy focus upon Steed, and though Emma Peel does get some airtime (and is recognisably herself), she’s arguably upstaged in the first book by Steed’s Bentley, which all seems rather unfair; and, of course, the pacing of a full-length novel (even a slim one) does make the going a little more ponderous than is the case in a tightly-scripted 50-minute TV episode. But that last isn’t really a drawback, in the right hands, because it allows the opportunity for character development — or at least backstory — to be teased out in a way not possible within the confines of a TV script. (Or, at least, not as scriptwriting was done back in the 1960s.)

Of the two books, the first, Deadline, is the more classically suspenseful, in that it poses a mystery, the solution of which remains unsolved up until the last chapter or two; it’s ingeniously constructed, well-researched, and actually describes what could almost have been a credible threat at the time, always assuming some individual or group was crazy-brave enough to try it on. The storyline involves a fictitious British newspaper, the Courier, in which key news articles in its Continental editions are being substituted out with offensively jingoistic (and entirely false) stories designed, it seems, to stir up trouble between the UK and its European neighbours … but to what end? The Ministry is baffled, not only to motive but as to means, and Steed and Peel are called in to investigate. As they do, they take it on themselves to infiltrate the Courier, to track down the plotters. There’s a lot of authentic-seeming detail in the newspaper workday background (which I’m guessing might show the hand of Peter Leslie … but this is just intuition on my part), and a lot of Steed. It is, as noted above, a pity Mrs Peel doesn’t get more airtime, but it is what it is. (Maybe, in an alternative universe somewhere, Diana Rigg has written a couple of Avengers novels in which Steed features only sparsely …)

Dead Duck has less of a mystery, even though it starts out with a wonderfully creepy scenario typical of the TV show — a random, unrelated set of people suddenly drop dead for no immediately-apparent reason, within a ten-mile radius of a quaint little English coastal village. It happens that one of the people is at the table next to Steed and Peel, who are dining at the restaurant run by Steed’s friend. Autopsies subsequently reveal that the common factor in all the deaths is that the victims had all recently eaten duck … The culprits in this one are revealed relatively early on (by about halfway through), and the latter half of the book is concerned with unpicking why they’re weaponising ducks with poison. It’s an interesting enough excursion, though a little (pardon me here) daffy; it perhaps reflects the shift in storylines that the TV show went through, from directly suspenseful in the early Peel episodes to suspenseful/zany as the seasons progressed. And there are matters touched on in the second book which the TV show itself would never dare to broach: a quite surprisingly direct degree of innuendo between two supporting characters; an overt drug reference; and a ‘Doctor Who’ name-drop.

It’s not the same as being able to watch the action unfold on the small screen, of course, which is the natural habital of the John Steed and the Emma Peel. But if you’ve watched all the episodes, and wish there were more, these do, at least, hint quite strongly at the ‘more’.

A book review: Engines of Empathy, by Paul Mannering

25 10 2015

Engines_of_Empathy(review first published in ASIM 61, 2015)

The first thing that you should know about this book, by NZ writer Paul Mannering, is that it is a quest story; and quest stories are obviously ten-a-penny, and at that probably overvalued. But the second thing you should know about this book is that its heroine is one Charlotte Pudding, a well-meaning single professional woman with an unparalleled knack for soothing the psyches of troubled domestic appliances, and that the quest at its centre concerns her endeavours to obtain a small bottle of patchouli oil for the antique living-oak desk which has been in her family for generations, at which point it should hopefully become somewhat apparent that Engines of Empathy is not exactly your regular quest novel.
Charlotte’s sidekick in her search for essence-of-patchouli (although he would insist that she is the sidekick) is the delightfully gauche, charmingly blunt Vole Drakeforth, who claims to be a direct descendant of one of the pioneers behind the development, a century or more ago, of Empathic Energy-based devices. Assisting Charlotte and Drakeforth in their efforts are an unusual religious order, the Arthurians (not, I hasten to add, the Lady-of-the-Lake lot, but a different mob), while the forces ranged against them include various representatives of the all-powerful Godden Energy megaconglomerate and a pair of particularly sarcastic furniture removalists.

Engines is quite wonderfully mad, a turbocharged alt-SF comic masterpiece that at once invites and yet more subtly resists comparison with the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or Robert Sheckley. Neatly, it carves out its own space; it is its own creation; it is most assuredly a great deal of fun to read and yet sensibly takes itself seriously the while. Pudding and Drakeforth provide excellent foils for one another, almost incessantly bickering between times of crisis, yet cooperating admirably (if, on occasion, begrudgingly) when the situation demands it; and the emotional freight of Charlotte’s personal situation (an inoperable and apparently terminal condition) is handled well.

Does Charlotte succeed in getting the patchouli oil? That’d be a spoiler … but I’d suggest it’s well worth your time checking out the book to find out.

I’ve also learnt that the next book in the sequence, Pisces of Fate, is due out this year from Paper Road Press.

No, the plural is not ‘Little Our’

4 10 2015

I am woefully slack at posting about (*insert subject of choice here*), but I feel I need to share this as a moment of unscripted serendipity — which, I believe you will agree, is quite the very best kind of serendipity. At Conflux, on Friday morning, I was still in the process of setting up the ASIM / Peggy Bright Books / Dragonwell Publishing dealers’ table when Gillian Polack, local author, historian, ancient food aficionado, and last year’s GUFF delegate, approached those present to ask if they would mind posing for a photo with Little My (because, at Loncon or shortly thereafter, Gillian received a Little My doll from the Finnish fans, and she has since been taking Little My on a World Tour of Australia, and uploading the photos). Who can resist the offer of a photo with Little My? Certainly not your obedient correspondent, who is something of a Tove Jansson tragic. And certainly not when having quite independently decided that morning to wear, for the very first time, this brand-new tee-shirt:


The room lighting’s not ideal, and I’m not holding the 3-D Little My too elegantly: I was concerned that both the 2-D and 3-D versions should be clearly visible … and I never photograph well. But enough excuses.

I shall call her … Mini-My.

Here, have some free fiction

3 10 2015

So as not to have the latest post being a promo for a now-concluded giveaway, and not having the spare brain cells right this very minute to draft something completely newish in the way of posterly verbiage (for Conflux is afoot, and preparations for the day still need to be completed), I offer you, dear reader, a piece of shortish fiction which I prepared earlier. It’s not entirely characteristic, but then, sometimes, none of my stories are.


Against the Flow

by Simon Petrie

“It looks a little cold,” said Harry, and then he went full nova. Harry had had a bad run lately anyway, what with him being a victim-bot, and past his abuse-by date. Still, it was quite something to see, provided you weren’t within the shock front.

Bettina and the Captain were. It pushed the Captain into the waterway. He landed in the Stable Two position, and was carried swiftly downstream, complaining all the while about the water running into his airlock. There was nothing any of us could do, or maybe we’d just forgotten how.

“I always thought Harry was more of a main-sequence kinda guy,” said Bettina. It’s true, she had always thought that. At least she’d always said it, which made you wonder how she’d got into the survey team in the first place. It might have helped her career if once in a while she’d said something different, but I guess even a stopped clock knows a thing or two. Then the shock front got to her too, she turned ninety degrees on some transcendental axis, and Bettina was as gone as the Captain and Harry.

There were three of us left — myself, Doctor Hinkelspritzengrüber, and some fellow in a red tunic that nobody knew the name of.

“We should do something,” said the Doctor, using her stethoscope as a megaphone. “Anyone got any ideas?”

“Bridge is a four-handed game,” I suggested.

“Ain’t no bridge here,” reported Red Tunic. Which wasn’t actually his name, on account of we didn’t know what it was, but we could see what he wore.

We looked at the other side, but it probably wasn’t getting any closer, unless it was. It was careless what had happened to the Captain, so I stepped back from the riverbank. I wondered why we hadn’t seen any aliens, and then I remembered Doctor Hinkelspritzengrübenhauser was one. Or had met one, or had said something about one at some point. It was so hard to tell, it could scratch diamond, and that’s what she did right at that point. It seemed a waste, particularly since I hadn’t even realised the diamond was there.

“I don’t think you should do that,” said Red Tunic.

“I think you mean,” said Doctor Hinkelspritzengrübenhausenfurter, whose name was getting longer each time she spoke, “that you don’t think I should have done that. There’s a difference.” And to prove this, she scratched the diamond again. “See?” We did, but I don’t believe she did, because she started resublimating.

I didn’t know what we should do with a twice-scratched diamond. I mean, if we took it back to the ship there’d be questions, and those always literally unnerve me. And there was clearly no help for Doctor Hinkelspritzengrübenhausenfurtenberger, she was crystallizing nicely, so me and Red Tunic — remember, not his real name — struck out upstream, just in time to see the Captain float past again. He looked happier now, though you could tell he’d never launch again, what with all those tadpoles in his engine room.

“We should be getting back,” said Red Tunic.

“We should,” I agreed. “What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t,” he explained. The Captain floated past a third time. I think he was trying to tell us something, but his nosecone got in the way, and then he was gone.

“Do you think Harry will collapse into a black hole?” I asked, thinking we should get well clear just in case.

“I don’t know,” said Red Tunic. “I could never determine how massive he was. But isn’t that the lander?”

He was right, it wasn’t. But I knew we’d left it around here somewhere. Bettina would have known, but of course she would just have said her thing about the main sequence again, so that probably wouldn’t have helped.

“Maybe we should head away from the water,” someone said. I thought it was Red Tunic, and he thought it was me, which made no sense, since my voice isn’t usually that magnetic. But it seemed like a good idea, so that’s what we did. After awhile things got more normal, and there was a signpost, which was blank, but still. Red Tunic told me his name was Walter; I asked him how that helped anyone, at which he burst into tears and said I didn’t respect him. Which was unfair of him in the circumstances, and I almost said so, at which he almost argued back. But we agreed to let bygones be bygones, and not to quibble about how we’d suddenly acquired telepathy.

The lander was where we’d left it, which made perfect sense. I was glad something did. We climbed to the airlock, and Commander Flint met us in the cockpit. She looked as though she’d been doing her nails, which was good because somebody had to, and mine were bitten to the quick.

“We had some problems,” I explained. “The other four, they didn’t make it.”

“That’s a shame,” she said. “But they knew the risks. Quicksand, I imagine. You can never trust quicksand. You found the stream?”

I looked at Walter, and he looked at me. “We found a stream,” I remarked. Walter shook his head in agreement.

“Yes, yes,” the Commander said impatiently. “I can tell that from the mud on your boots. But was it the stream?”

I thought about the terrible things that had happened to the others, and maybe to me too while I wasn’t looking. And I shot Walter a warning glance, which he seemed to catch. There were some things, I thought, better left undiscovered.

So I lied. “No,” I told her, and that’s what I put in the report too. “No, it wasn’t the stream.”

“Damn,” she replied. “I was so sure this was going to be the one.” She turned in her seat and made preparations for launch. I wondered which planet in the big wide Galaxy she’d next think to survey, in our foolhardy quest for the mythical Stream of Consciousness.


A Rare Unsigned Giveaway

29 08 2015

Cover art by Tom Godfrey

By way of being something vaguely resembling a public service announcement, I’ll say the following:

I’m currently running a Goodreads giveaway for five paperback copies of my first collection Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables. The giveaway runs until 10th September (for a given value of ’10th September’ depending on, I think, US timezones), it’s open to anyone in Australia, NZ, UK, USA, and Canada, and the recipients are selected randomly by some robot at Goodreads central (or something like that). If you feel the need for a mixture of puns, pop-culture references, black humour and hard science fiction, or you happen to have a kitchen table with one leg 15.235 mm shorter than the other three, it might be just what you’re looking for.

On the need to be dead, the onset of fame, fifty years, and a hole in the ground

24 08 2015

(I’ll just say at the outset that this is not leading where you think it’s going to lead. Bear with me on that.)

When does fame start?

I’m not asking for myself; I’m asking on behalf of … well, I’ll get to that. But why might I be asking such a question?

The rules to get a crater named after you on Mercury, according to the International Astronomical Union – and I’m paraphrasing here, but I believe this to be an accurate representation of their guidelines – is that (1) you need to have been dead for at least three years, (2) you need to have been an artist, author, musician, dancer or other creative type, and (3) you need to have been famous for at least fifty years. Now point (1) is easily met, eventually, if rather depressing to contemplate on a personal level, and point (2) is not necessarily a great hurdle nowadays, with the proliferation of self-publishing and what-have-you. But (3), famous for fifty years: that’s a somewhat taller order altogether. That’s an actual requirement.

It’s my contention, if you’ll indulge me, that a pre-eminent candidate for commemoration via Mercurian craterhood is none other than electric guitarist John Cipollina, who joined his first (and probably best-known) band about fifty years ago in San Francisco, in the very first flowering of what was to be the psychedelic rock scene that took root in California, and elsewhere, as the Sixties progressed. We’ll get to the identity of that band in a little while – they were certainly in existence in 1965, they may have been formed as early as 1964. The biographies that I’ve investigated tend to be unreliable as to exact dates … but then, it was the Sixties.

Cipollina has the unique distinction, so far as I know, that although he’s never been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, his amp stack has. His sound, too, was unique, almost instantly recognisable. His one experience at leading a band, Copperhead, did not fare well; their manager fell under suspicion of involvement with drugs, the label pulled all support for their album, and they received minimal airplay. Copperhead’s first, eponymous album, released in 1973, went nowhere much, but it’s a classic: the album’s closing track, ‘They’re Making A Monster’ (Youtube link provided for your convenience), gives an excellent illustration of Cipollina’s guitar skills, once the slightly sludgy opening gets out of the way. There’s a second album too, apparently, that’s been sitting in the Columbia vaults for the past forty-odd years, unreleased: as I said, the label pulled all support.

While there are many other instances I could offer of Cipollina’s exquisite musicianship, from his time with Terry and the Pirates, or the Dinosaurs, or with a dozen other bay-area bands, I’ll offer just one example, recorded live in 1986, three years before his death. Here he plays guitar on a Sixties standard, performing ‘Hey Joe’ alongside Billy Roberts. (One of Cipollina’s erstwhile bandmates – Dino Valenti aka Chet Powers – had claimed, in the sixties, to have written ‘Hey Joe’. Tim Rose, another sixties singer-songwriter, also claimed to have written it, and later plagiarised it under a different title. Billy Roberts was the song’s true composer.)

As you may be able to detect from the above, Cipollina is quite possibly my favourite guitarist. He was arguably not as technically proficient as certain others of the same era – Hendrix, the early Jeff Beck, Peter Green – but his sound was utterly unmistakeable, wonderfully distinctive, and to my ears at least, a thing of beauty. His involvement could create a magical soundscape as well as, at times, redeem a song which didn’t actually merit redemption.

But … what does all this have to do with Mercury?

On one level, not much. But Cipollina has been dead a quarter century. And since he joined his first band fifty years ago, in 1965 (which peaked with their first two albums, both recorded in 1968), he arguably meets the ‘fifty years of fame’ criterion – if not right this minute, then at the next time that the IAU calls for nominations for Mercury crater names. And that first band, owing in large part to the confluence of bithdates of its founding members, two of whom (including Cipollina) had August 24th as a birthday, was named Quicksilver Messenger Service. Please don’t make me spell out the Mercury references in that name …

So. A crater for John Cipollina on Mercury. I rest my case.

To the Hugo, the spoils

24 08 2015

The 2015 Hugo awards have come and gone, and I’m at peace with the results. Hearty congratulations to Lightspeed, who took out the semiprozine category (well ahead of ASIM, according to the detailed breakdown of voting). The commemorative award to Jay Lake was truly moving; it was terrific to see Galactic Suburbia, Julie Dillon, and Journey Planet (for example) get their awards; and this must, surely, be the first time in the Hugos’ history when the only pro-fiction authors awarded have been non-Anglophone (Cixin Liu for Best Novel and Thomas Olde Heuvelt for Best Novelette).

Obviously, there’s still a lot of vitriol in certain quarters. No-awarding in five categories will have that effect on some people. But at the End of the Day, it’s time we moved on, yeah? The Hugos have emerged with dignity intact, and the fans have spoken.

Message ends.


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