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Fri
Feb 28 2014 12:30pm

Fearsome Felines: Cat Out of Hell by Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss Cat Out of Hell

Fun fact: I do most of my reading with a cat on my lap.

She came into her name—Page—by interposing herself between book and user from birth, basically; by sleeping in, on and under the many novels lying around in the library; and by chewing her way through on a fair few too. This latter habit hardly made me happy, but she’s been treated like a Queen in any event. Despite resolutions arrived at when she was a bitty little kitty that I wouldn’t make the mistake of spoiling her... well, I have, haven’t I? She’s irresistible, really.

But with rather alarming regularity, she appears in the periphery of my vision—paws primed to pounce; frenzied eyes fixed on mine; tail wagging to say she’s acquired a target; ready, by all accounts, to eat me, or at the very least mistreat me. So I have had call to wonder why even the cutest cats seem to harbour such hatred. In her first full-length fiction for in excess of a decade, Lynne Truss offers a potential explanation.

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Tue
Jul 29 2008 12:43pm

Individual and Irreverent: Eric Frank Russell

When I re-read Eric Frank Russell's Next of Kin yesterday for the first time in a long time, I was surprised to discover that the story I remembered started on page 105 of 160. When I'd finished, I went to check with Sasha, who was twelve a lot more recently than I was. "You've read Next of Kin, yes?" "Sure. That's the one with the guy who's captured by the aliens and--" "On what page would you say he was captured by the aliens? Just a rough estimate?" "Page 3?" he asked, giving me his "You know, I could have had a normal mother!" look.

Next of Kin consists 105 pages of old fashioned SF adventure followed by 55 pages of sheer brilliance. In the first part, John Leeming, a scout-ship pilot with an attitude problem, goes behind enemy lines in a star-spanning war to scout out the depth of enemy territory. He discovers 82 planets and crashlands on the 83rd, where he survives for a while in the wilderness before being captured, escaping, survives again and almost gets off the planet, all before we get to the good bit. Bear in mind that all this only takes 105 pages--they made books shorter in 1959, but they didn't pack any less story into them. In the terrific concluding section, Leeming single handedly wins the war from an alien prison cell by some fast talking. No, it's better than that. He does it by pretending that all humans have an invisible symbiote called a Eustace, and manages to make the aliens believe it by some clever wordplay.  It's funny, it's clever, and it's entirely unforgettable--unlike the earlier part of the book.

If Heinlein had three plots, "boy meets girl", "man learns lesson" and "the little tailor", Russell had one--man vs bureaucracy. Heinlein's "boy" might be a girl and his "man" might be "mankind", but Russell's man was always just that--one male human singlehandedly overcoming the vast forces of bureaucracy. Sometimes, as in Next of Kin and Wasp, it's alien bureaucracy--though Leeming does an end-run around the humans as well. Other times, as in the short stories "Allamagoosa" and "And Then There Were None...", it's very much human bureaucracy

Russell's writing, unlike Heinlein's, is definitely old fashioned. Women barely exist--there are no women in Next of Kin, and I can't remember anything but women as plot tokens anywhere. He wasn't really a novelist either; all his best work was at short length. There's something quaint and nostalgic about his universes and his cardboard characters. "I'd have loved this when I was twelve," I found myself thinking. "Oh, right. I did." It's lovely that NESFA have so much Russell in print, but is he really relevant these days?

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Sat
Jul 26 2008 2:23pm

From Herring to Marmalade: the perfect plot of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

You know those polished wooden egg puzzles that people buy for you, the kind that are beautiful when they're an egg but that fall to part into shards that seem impossible for mortals to reassemble? Then maybe after a lot of trying suddenly all these impossible three dimensional jigsaw pieces suddenly slot together and you have a lovely fragile egg again? Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency always reminds me of one of those.  

I didn't read it for ages. It wasn't that I didn't like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it was just that I thought the plot had rather fallen apart in the later books. Indeed, the "throw in everything including the kitchen sink and St Anselm's ontological proof of the existence of God" style of the Hitchhiker books had lent the series high initial energy but did not lead to continuous plot, or even necessarily making sense. They were inventive and amusing, but he seemed to be juggling too many balls and letting a lot of them drop. I wasn't in a hurry for more Douglas Adams in 1987. I didn't get around to picking Dirk Gently up until Emmet insisted on lending it to me in the mid-nineties.

 

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