Of Nightmares and Travel Guides

As usual, I had a hard time deciding what books to take with me on my trip. I had quite a stack on the table, and Daniel helped me finally narrow it down to two:

Frederik Pohl – Alternating Currents (short stories), and Robert Rankin – The Book of Ultimate Truths. The first being smaller and lighter, I thought I might read it en route, and so packed it in a safe and sensible place in the carry-on trolley, so it would be easy to get at. So naturally I couldn’t for the life of me find it, and had to start reading the Rankin which had been casually thrown in among the clothes in the big suitcase. But before I could get very far, Michael finished the book he was reading, and so appropriated Rankin, while, by sheer chance, Pohl turned up.

Not that I had much time for reading; and when I did read, my first priority was the excellent travel guide we brought along (amply mentioned in my travel blog) by Rick Steves & Cameron Hewitt. Disappointed with the scant choice of travel guides in English on Slovenia & Croatia at local shops (Steimatzki and Lametayel), Michael turned to Amazon.com and ordered 2 books that seemed promising . The Rick Steves one made good on that promise: not only does it give detailed and reliable information on everything from where to stay, what to wear and which ice cream is best, but it's also entertaining reading; these writers definitely have a way with words. (When was the last time you guffawed while reading a Michelin guide-book?)

But at bedtime, Steves was abandoned in favor of Pohl.

Big mistake?...

The first story, Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus, with its focus on consumerism gone mad, reminded me of The Midas Plague, in Pohl's collection The Case Against Tomorrow. In both, the problem of over-consuming is not solved on a global level; but individuals, at least, find a way around it, so in that sense at least it has a happy end.

The second story, Ghost Maker, is a bit morbid, and the protagonist gets his comeuppance with a twist… Keep that in mind when dealing with ghosts and ghost-makers.

The third story, Let the Ants Try, is a downright horror story and a dire dystopia. I think the mere title gave me the creeps; I sort of suspected the ants would win the day, to the detriment of mankind. It was the sort of story to give me nightmares. Luckily, my felicitous travel experiences overcame the imaginary horror, and my crazy dreams were on the happy side.

Pythias, a story of pride and the dangers of absolute power, sent me running (well, clicking, more like) to Wikipedia, ashamed of my ignorance. Wow! Did you know she was Aristotle's first wife? Together, Aristotle and Pythias had a daughter, also named Pythias. This Pythias married three times. I bet their story is at least as interesting as this specific story by Pohl, and probably more so.

The Mapmakers is about being lost in space. Yes, the spaceship Terra II gets back safely. That isn't really a spoiler, because how they find their way back is the unexpected bit.

Rafferty's Reasons is plain depressing in an Orwellian way, with echoes of Animal Farm, 1984, and perhaps some Camus thrown in, I'm not sure. If this story is any indication of the shape of things to come, then we all have very good reason to rebel.

Target One is one of those time-warp/alternate history stories where the protagonists naively think that if they only change or prevent one significant event, history will be the better for it. Well, naturally we're not that naïve, we know that change happens with or without a certain great personality. We sci-fi readers know that messing with history more often than not screws things up even worse…

Grandy Devil – ah, at last a whimsical, humorous story! Not without its dark side, but not nightmare material.

The Tunnel Under the World
is my favorite story in this collection. It starts out with a bang and ends in a whimper, but that's not a bad thing, in this case. The nightmare begins early on, the protagonist is trapped, feels that something terrible is going on (the doings of Martians? The Russians?) and decides to fight it, run for freedom, get help. As his attempt is foiled, the twist in the plot reveals itself… Which is why I'll clam up and say no more. Go ahead, read it, I dare you.

What To Do Till The Analyst Comes (last story) suffers from a bit of obvious preachiness. It, too, reeks of doom; not by the hands of aliens but by our own laziness, in a Lotus Eaters kind of way.

As for the Rankin book – I am reserving judgment, since I am only on page 37 out of 347. All I can say is that so far I'm having a hard time following what's going on. (Daniel did warn me it was weird.) I peeked at readers' opinions online and got the impression that Rankin is an acquired taste.


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