A new home

After almost 19 years of blogging on Livejournal, and almost 15,000 entries, the time has come to move to a dedicated WordPress site, managed by the amazing Damien at Elucidate. I have archived all of my old entries to the new site (or rather, Damien has); and I hope to import all comments and tags as well. I don’t plan to delete my Livejournal, and I will crosspost to it once I work out how, but I have a strong suspicion that it won’t stay up for much longer.

This is still a work in progress, and I hope to improve the look and feel of the blog over the next weeks and months as I get to grips with the power of WordPress. Already I feel it’s something I probably could and should have done years ago. Look forward to hearing from you all.

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Saturday reading

Current
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
That Damn’d Thing Called “Honour”: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860, by James Kelly
Doctor Who and the Time Warrior, by Terrance Dicks

Last books finished
Scary Monsters, by Simon A. Forward
Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric, by Ian Briggs
Sprawl, ed. Cat Sparks
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
The Curse of Fenric, by Una McCormack

Next books
The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross

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Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

I finished rereading Midnight’s Children almost two weeks ago, but had not yet got around to blogging it until yesterday’s terrible news pushed me into action. It’s good to hear that Salman Rushdie is likely to survive this dreadful attack, but awful that he has been grievously wounded in the course of what should have been a normal professional engagement.

I fear that there are lessons here for anyone involved with organising cultural events; none of us is safe from a determined malefactor. I know that the internal culture of sf conventions is increasingly conscious of security risks, both internal and external. It sucks but it is necessary.

It should also be noted that the risk comes from all extremes. No ideology or belief system has a monopoly on the use of political violence. Christians, Jews, atheists, leftists and right-wingers all use terrorism. Anyone who says that it is a uniquely Muslim phenomenon can go forth and multiply with themselves.

This particular incident is almost certainly rooted in the fatwa pronounced against Rushdie back in 1989 by Ruhollah Khomeini, shortly before his death. I have always suspected that it was an outworking of Iranian politics at the time; the dying Ayatollah wanting to reinforce the place of his regime as a champion of Islam against the West, as the world in general was undergoing revolutionary changes, and therefore picking on a very prominent Westernised Muslim writer as an easy target of opportunity.

The practical effects for Rushdie were devastating even before yesterday. I recommend reading the account he wrote (in the third person) for the New Yorker ten years ago. He makes a very interesting point about the real problem as he saw it:

When friends asked what they could do to help, he pleaded, “Defend the text.” The attack was very specific, yet the defense was often a general one, resting on the mighty principle of freedom of speech. He hoped for, felt that he needed, a more particular defense, like those made in the case of other assaulted books, such as “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Ulysses,” or “Lolita”—because this was a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together.

I don’t feel well informed enough to comment in much more detail. I read The Satanic Verses fifteen years ago and found the critique of Islam pretty mild stuff, at least to what I am used to reading about Catholicism. I hope that Rushdie survives to write more.

My copy of Midnight’s Children was given to me 35 years ago by a dear friend who I have since fallen out of touch with. Opening it again was a return to the better times of that relationship, and I felt a warm glow of nostalgia just from the title page. I enjoyed it over Christmas in 1987, and I enjoyed it again now. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I am not speaking metaphorically; nor is this the opening gambit of some melodramatic, riddling, grubby appeal for pity. I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug – that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage above and drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams. In short, I am literally disintegrating, slowly for the moment, although there are signs of acceleration. I ask you only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous, and necessarily oblivious, dust. That is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters.)

This weekend is the 75th anniversary of the Midnight of the title, the moment of India’s independence in 1947. The book is the story of India in the last years of British rule and the first thirty-odd years of independence, and it covers also Pakistan and Bangladesh, because you can’t tell the full story otherwise. We know we are onto a good thing in the second chapter, when hereditary nasal problems prove an unexpected blessing to the narrator’s grandfather during the Amritsar massacre:

As the fifty-one men march down the alleyway a tickle replaces the itch in my grandfather’s nose. The fifty-one men enter the compound and take up positions, twenty-five to Dyer’s right and twenty-five to his left; and Adam Aziz ceases to concentrate on the events around him as the tickle mounts to unbearable intensities. As Brigadier Dyer issues a command the sneeze hits my grandfather full in the face. ‘Yaaaakh-thoooo!’ he sneezes and falls forward, losing his balance, following his nose and thereby saving his life.

The protagonist, Saleem Sinai, is one of the thousand children born in the first hour of India’s independence, all of whom are endowed with supernatural powers of one kind or another. He is perpetually conflicted about his own identity, unaware that in fact he was swapped at birth with the child of a poorer neighbour. His life loops in and out of Indian (and Pakistani and Bangladeshi) history; his powers prove more a curse than a blessing; the political becomes personal and the personal political. It is tremendously engaging; sometimes funny, sometimes very bleak, sometimes both.

If you don’t know a lot about India (or Pakistan or Bangladesh), as I did not in 1987, you’ll learn a lot from this and enjoy the process. If you do know a bit more, I think you’d still enjoy it. I think the one point that has not aged all that well is that the protagonist is actually not a very pleasant person, especially to the women in his life (who are in general as well drawn as the men), and that gets a bit tiresome. But overall I can see why it was acclaimed at the time and why it remains popular. You can get it here.

This was the top book on my shelves which I had read but not yet written up on line. Next is a much older magical book, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

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August 2017 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

The major event of August 2017 for me was the Helsinki Worldcon my first gig as Hugo Administrator; I wrote up my memories of it here and here. I was also sorry to hear that we had lost Brian Aldiss and Tony de Brum. I needed a lot of decompression from Worldcon, especially after missing my flight home on the last evening. Here are two lovely Hugo ceremony pictures from Wikipedia with my successive Deputy Administrators, Colette Fozard and Kathryn Duval.

I did manage to read 21 books that month.

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 34)
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
, by Erving Goffman
QI: The Book of the Dead, by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
William Cecil, Ireland and the Tudor State, by Christopher Maginn
You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day
The Life of the Bee, by Maurice Maeterlinck

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 15)
The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Children are Civilians Too, by Heinrich Böll

sf (non-Who): 5 (YTD 56)
The Moon Stallion, by Brian Hayles
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid
Pelléas and Mélisande, by Maurice Maeterlinck
The Fall of Arthur, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Blue Bird, by Maurice Maeterlinck

Doctor Who, etc: 6 (YTD 39)
Decide Your Destiny: Claws of the Macra, by Trevor Baxendale
Decide Your Destiny: Judoon Monsoon, by Oli Smith
Decide Your Destiny: Empire of the Wolf, by Neil Corry
Short Trips: Transmissions, ed. Richard Salter
A Life of Surprises, ed. Paul Cornell
The Shining Man, by Cavan Scott

Comics: 3 (YTD 17)
Aliénor: La Légende Noire, vol 1, by Arnaud Delalande and Simona Mogavino, art by Carlos Gomez
Aliénor: La Légende Noire, vol 2, by Arnaud Delalande and Simona Mogavino, art by Carlos Gomez
Moomin: The Complete Comic Strip vol. 7, by Lars Jansson

4,500 pages (YTD 40,400)
4/21 (YTD 47/163) by women (Day, Stockett, Mogavino x2)
1/21 (YTD 15/163) by PoC (Hamid)

The two best of these, by a long way, were Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, which you can get here, and Heinrich Böll’s Children are Civilians Too, which you can get here. The QI Book of the Dead did not do much for me, but you can get it here.

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The Life of Col. Samuel M. Wickersham, based on his writings 1863-1894, ed. Edward Wickersham Hoffman

After a few days off (and very relaxing holiday) I’m back to bookblogging again. I have built up quite a backlog thanks to general downtime an also some shorter books, though this one is not very short.

Second paragraph of third letter (from Yorktown, VA, 7 December 1862):

My regiment is pronounced by the officers as the best that has ever landed at their shores and their arrival is a valuable addition to the strength of this important post. After reporting, leaving one company in barracks in the Fort I marched the other companies to the boat. Deposited guns and knapsacks and they distributed the rations and gave them privilege to go ashore and cook their vitals [sic] and a happy merry time they had. All are now on board, gone to roost, guards are stationed, and I am writing to my dear little wife. Tomorrow morning I go to Gloucester, across the York River, to select the ground for my camp and lay it out for winter quarters where I hope to succeed in training my men rightly. All are in good spirits and anxious to acquire knowledge in their art.

More of the correspondence of my great-great-grandfather, a Pittsburgh iron merchant who married his third wife, my great-great-grandmother, in 1860 as the Civil War loomed. She seems to have been very diligent about keeping his correspondence; none of hers to him or to anyone else survives, but we also have a few letters from the daughters of his earlier marriages, addressed to “Mother” (ie their stepmother).

The first volume in this series dealt with the courtship between Samuel Wickersham and Fanny Belt; they lived most of their subsequent lives together, so the only other substantial amount of correspondence comes from his six months of service in the Civil War (briefly in charge of the Pennsylvania 22nd regiment and then second-in-command of the Pennsylvania 169th), and then settling back into the swing of things immediately after when she was spending a lot of time in Philadelphia – partly due to her father’s illness, but also their relationship seems to have had the occasional rocky patch.

Wickersham did not have a terribly dangerous civil war. The Pennsylvania 169th lost a total of eleven men in the few months of its existence, all through disease and none in combat. The closest they got to serious action was pursuing the defeated Lee southwards after Gettysburg, but at that point the Confederates were too busy running away to shoot back. Most of Wickersham’s letters to his wife complain that he has not been paid yet, that she hasn’t written recently and/or that he has got diarrhoea again. There is also some rather sweet commentary on the children, including my great-grandmother getting her first teeth.

Trigger warning: racism

The most interesting thing for me is that although he was fighting in a war to end slavery, he was still pretty racist. From the 7 December 1862 letter:

4,000 contraband [freed slaves] are quartered about the town in tents or shanties. General Nagle says the best houses in these parts are occupied by them, and woe betide the officer who would displace them to accommodate the soldiers. I told him that if the needs of comfort of my men come into collision with those of the negroes, I fear I shall be recusant to any such orders.

From 13 February 1863:

I hope to do my whole duty to my country under all circumstances, but the negro I never did and never will acknowledge but as an inferior race. I am not and never was an abolitionist, but now to end this war, I would take from our enemies all that strengthen their arms to strike us and if we could afterwards deport the entire negro race to some other clime a source of the most wicked crimes and demoralising influences on our own race would be removed.

From 21 July 1863, after the post-Gettysburg pursuit:

The backbone of this heinous rebellion is broken and the end of it appears. Let us thank God for this. The reign of the n****r in the South ends with it and white man will take his proper place there and Virginia will yet be what nature has so fitted her to be the great state of the union.

It is quite an extraordinary leap to describe the antebellum South as being under the “reign of the n****r”. And I am left not quite understanding why he was so enthusiastic about the war, if he was so prejudiced against African-Americans and actually opposed to Abolition. I guess that there is context here that I have not seen.

One more point of historical mystery: on 25 October 1866, he writes to Fanny,

I have just been tendered the appointment of Asst. Secretary of War & asked for my acceptance. What say you? Mr. Stanton retires & Gen. Sherman takes the position of Secretary of War & ’tis under the new Secty that the offer is made to me.

President Johnson was in perpetual conflict with Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and indeed his attempt to fire him in 1868 would eventually lead to his impeachment. In October 1866, Johnson must have been hoping that the November elections would give him more room to manoeuvre. Wickersham was friends with Andrew Curtin, the Governor of Pennsylvania, who presumably would have recommended him in Washington.

In fact, the radical Republicans, who felt (entirely correctly) that Johnson was being too soft on the former rebels, won a crushing victory in the 1866 elections and we hear no more of Wickersham’s ambitions in the Executive Branch. (Forty-odd years later, his son was appointed Attorney-General by President Taft.)

There are some interesting personal glimpses as well. There is a mysterious incident where Wickersham fauxpologises, twice, to Fanny for destroying a photograph of her that he did not like, and then tries to guilt her into coming home from her parents, a pattern that is all too familiar to students of human nature. Wickersham’s oldest daughter, Katie, writes several letters to her stepmother about her courtship with a boy we know only as Will G. She never married and died of tuberculosis in her forties. A number of Wickersham’s sketches have survived, as has a single faded flower plucked from the fields of Virginia in the spring of 1863.

There is no point in sugar-coating the past; our ancestors were people of their time, and it is better to acknowledge the facts of racism and injustice than to pretend that they did not exist. This book is probably of limited interest except to the specialist, or to Wickersham’s (many) descendants, but you can get it here.

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The report on the Hugo Awards Study Committee report

Way back in 2017, my then Deputy Hugo Administrator and I proposed that a study committee should be set up by the WSFS Business Meeting to revise the Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist categories, which are difficult to understand and hugely out of date. The Business Meeting amended our resolution, with our consent, to create a Hugo Award Study Committee (HASC) with a broad remit to “study revisions to Article 3 (Hugo Awards) of the WSFS Constitution, including any such proposals for amending Article 3 as may be referred to it by the Business Meeting or suggested by others; [and] make recommendations, which may include proposing constitutional amendments, to the 2018 Business Meeting.”

In the last five years, the HASC has changed precisely two words of the Constitution. (Since you asked: adding the words “or Comic” to the title of the “Best Graphic Story” category.) The HASC’s defenders will complain that we had two years of pandemic, and that the committee switched to Discord rather than email only this year, and that there are lots of proposals this year. But the fact remains that so far the practical impact has been slower than I imagined when I first proposed the Committee.

There is now a detailed report of its activities in the last year and proposals for the coming WSFS Business meeting in Chicago. (Pages 56-77 of the Business Meeting agenda., with individual proposals discussed on pages 33 to 44.) Individual areas are broken out into separate headings with a named set of subcommittee members and a Chair and Sub-Chair. I am one of the signatories to the report, but I have also several dissents, as I will explain below.

My first point of dissent is in the introduction. Unfortunately, I did not feel that discussion was always respectful or effective, and it felt at times like a closed group of people which should have found a better way of reaching out to wider fandom. I do not think that the Committee’s mandate should be extended for another year, and if it is, I would like to see new leadership. The first draft of the report called for the current Chair to continue, but after much wrangling, that recommendation was deleted by a formal majority vote of the Committee. I am grateful to the current leadership for their work, but I think a change of tone will be healthy. Volunteers interested in facilitating inclusive and constructive discussions will be very welcome. (Assuming that the Business Meeting ignores my advice and renews the Committee; more on that later.)

Going through the subcommittees:

Best Related Work

Here the HASC makes no recommendations, and I agree. I certainly prefer when this category goes to prose non-fiction commentary, but I can’t find it in my heart to say that the voters got it wrong in the last three years when they chose other things. (Archive Of Our Own, Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf translation.) And if we carved off non-fiction prose into its own category, as some would prefer, I don’t really think that there is enough other material to reliably populate an “everything else” category.

Best Dramatic Presentation

Here the HASC also makes no recommendations, and I also agree. Any further split will mean an increase in the number of Hugo categories, to honour winners who do not always show a lot of interest in our process. The discussion did not really seem to reflect the proposals I have seen from wider fandom.

Best Audiobook

Here the HASC again makes no recommendations, and again I agree. For any new Hugo category proposal, I would like to see evidence 1) that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, 2) that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works loved by fans which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and 3) that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on. I don’t see a problem here with the third of these criteria, but there is no clear case for the first two.

This was business referred to the HASC by the 2021 Business Meeting. It would have been preferable to give the Audiobook proposal a clean death in 2021, rather than sentence it to suffocation by committee.

Best Game or Interactive Work

A new Hugo category is proposed. I think this is very good, and despite my general dislike of new categories, it clearly meets my three criteria above (that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works loved by fans which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on). This is something that both fans and the wider public can get excited about. Procedurally, it should be noted that this was largely the work of one activist supported by an ad hoc committee, refined by discussion with HASC members.

Best Series

This is one of three discussions where the HASC seriously lost its way. Best Series very narrowly survived an attempt to sunset it in 2021 by 35 votes to 30. The report declares, contra all evidence other than wishful thinking, that the “fundamental problem” with the category is “the possibility of a work being nominated for both Best Novel/Novella/ Novelette/Short Story and for Best Series (as a component), leading to reduced chances for other works to be nominated or win”, and therefore proposes two amendments.

The first of these amendments disqualifies from Best Series any series any of whose component parts has ever won a Hugo in any written category. The second makes it against the rules for the same material to appear on the same year’s ballot both on its own and as part of a series.

The immediate impact of both of these amendments will be to increase headaches for Hugo administrators, who will have to disqualify popular works that people have actually voted for, just because the 2021-22 Best Series subcommittee thinks that voters have been Doing It Wrong. There will also be some interesting judgement calls about exactly what works fall into or out of a particular series.

Both amendments also decrease the pool of eligible nominees by eliminating the ones that are too popular or too long-running. If either of these is passed, when the statistics come out and it becomes clear which nominees have been disqualified, it’s not the 2021-22 Best Series subcommittee who will get the blame, it will be that year’s administrators.

Cards on the table: I opposed the creation of Best Series at the time, and I’d have voted to kill it if I’d been in DC last year, and I’ll vote to kill it again if I ever get a chance. But this is not the moment to re-hash those arguments; we are where we are, and I would prefer that if we are to have a Best Series award at all, voters get to decide what works they want to honour, with no more intrusion from the rules than is strictly necessary. Both amendments should be rejected.

Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist

This is the bit that I wrote, with much welcome input from others, on an issue that was core to the founding of the Committee and has been referred back more than once by WSFS Business Meetings. The old definitions of the Artist categories are very out of date. Professional Artist basically means “Illustrator”. “Fan Artist” has a long list of eligible venues for publication which however is not exhaustive. I have had some pushback that the proposed Fan Artist amendment does not explicitly mention fanzines or conventions; the fact is that categories that are defined by place of publication or display will always run the risk of becoming outdated. So we have looked instead at the economics.

The proposal is to define Fan Art as art that is not produced for professional profit, and Professional Art as art that is produced for professional profit. If you’ve done three or more pieces of art in the last year that weren’t paid for at the time (might have been sold subsequently), then you will be eligible for Best Fan Artist. If you’ve done three or more pieces of art in the last year that were paid for at the time, then you will be eligible for Best Professional Artist. And if you’ve done both, you will be eligible for both. Selling your fan art after it’s been first displayed at a convention doesn’t make you eligible for Pro Artist in itself, because it was created for the convention, not directly for sale.

We went back and forth on this quite a bit, but the artist community indicated that they were happy with where we ended up. I am sure that it is capable of further refinement, but it’s a huge step forward from the status quo. The proposal opens up both categories to artists who were previously excluded, and decreases the burden on Hugo administrators to make tricky eligibility calls. (Or, for instance, to try and explain the concept of Semiprozines to artists who speak no English and have no connection to Worldcon fandom.) It will continue to be possible that an artist could qualify in both categories. I for one can live with that, if it is what fans choose to vote for.

Fan vs Pro

I did not understand this discussion, and I still don’t. It was supposedly driven by an incorrect perception that for the Artist categories, “at the root of the issue is a lack in the Constitution of a single definition for ‘Professional’, ‘Non-Professional’, or ‘Fan’.” I did not pay too much attention to the internal discussion, as I didn’t see the point of it, and also we were told that no new constitutional amendment on this would be formally proposed by the HASC.

Then suddenly at the last moment it turned out that such an amendment had been proposed by the HASC leadership, without the HASC as a whole being informed that this was happening. This proposal in particular went down like a lead balloon in some quarters of fandom, and the way it was handled was not appreciated by a number of HASC members, including me.

A minority opinion has been posted in the HASC report, expressing the entirely correct view that this should never have been proposed without wider community consultation. (In fact, the minority is rather close to being a majority.) I agree with most of it, and have co-signed, with a caveat: I am not certain that the problem (if there is one) should be addressed in this way at all, ie with a global definition of Fan and Pro. My instinct is that, if changes are needed, it may be better to do that category by category, as is proposed with Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist.

Even if this or something similar is passed, the specific definitions in the Best Artist categories (both as they currently are, and if my proposed amendments are passed) will take precedence for those categories, as will any other specific definitions elsewhere; and that nullified the supposed basis for the whole discussion.

Thresholds

This is the third category where the HASC seriously lost the run of itself. Two amendments are proposed, and I have signed a minority report opposing both. The current rule is that the total first preference vote for finalists in a particular category is less than 25% of the whole Hugo poll, that category is No Awarded. The first proposed amendment changes that to the lesser of 25% or 200 votes.

To have a 25% threshold makes the lower-participation categories very vulnerable to a future year when loads of people join Worldcon to vote for the previous year’s howling commercial success in Best Novel or Best Dramatic Presentation, and nothing else. As for the 200 votes option, I am leery of hardwiring numerical thresholds into the constitution, given that it will take two years to change if we turn out to have got the wrong number.

Really, it would be better (as others outside the HASC have proposed, and as the minority report recommends) to simply abolish the threshold. It has never been used. No Award has on occasion won the preference ballot, most recently in 2018; and there is also a provision that if a majority of voters prefer No Award to the candidate which would otherwise have won, the category is No Awarded. The threshold is superfluous to those provisions, and brings unnecessary risk.

The second and final proposed amendment sets conditions under which the Business Meeting would consider the abolition of low-participation Hugo categories. I simply don’t think it is appropriate for the Constitution to direct and potentially constrain future Business Meetings in that way. If the point ever comes that we need to abolish a category, we’ll know it without the constitution telling us so. I’ll have more to say on that once this year’s award cycle is over.

Continuation

As I said at the start, I do not think that the Hugo Awards Study Committee should be continued. Despite five years of existence, no new proposals have emerged on Best Related Work, Best Dramatic Presentation, or Best Audiobook, and those discussions should now return to the wider community. Good proposals have been made this year on Best Game / Interactive Work and (cough) the Best Artist categories, but bad proposals have been made on Best Series (two of them!), thresholds (another two!), and the supposed need to hardwire definitions of Fan and Pro into the constitution (proposed without the approval of Committee members).

The risk of establishing a separate Study Committee for a body like WSFS is that a few vocal participants will use it to promote their own hobby-horses, and present them to the Business Meeting with the veneer of committee support. There’s no easy way to prevent this, in what is, after all, a volunteer body. Appointing new leadership will be helpful, but is probably not sufficient.

I believe that it would be better to disband the Study Committee, now that the job has been done on Best Game and the Artist categories (and, years ago, the title change to “Best Graphic Story or Comic”). In future the Business Meeting can and should set up ad hoc specialist groups to look at particular issues as required, just as it has done in the past, without the overthinking that has happened recently as a result of silo-ing the discussion, and with more openness to stakeholders outside the Business Meeting itself.

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Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

For the next three nights, unknown to the five prisoners who could hear no sound through the thick walls, carpenters were hard at work erecting gallows and gibbets in the fortress courtyard. At 3.30 a.m. on 8 May they were woken by prison guards, shackled and chained again, and told that in accordance with the sentences imposed on them at a Special Session of the State Senate held three weeks earlier they were now to be hanged. Their offence: an attempted assassination of the Tsar. Jailers said later that the five young men, all of them students at St Petersburg University, were unusually calm as they dressed and prepared themselves for death.

I got this book a couple of years ago because I was chasing a particular historical fact that had eluded me: precisely where in Brussels was the initial venue of the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903, which saw the original Bolshevik / Menshevik split? The Congress met for a few days in a rat-infested flour warehouse, somewhere fairly central, but had to relocate to London because of oppressive surveillance by the Belgian police. The details that we have are entirely from a single account written years later by Lenin’s wife. As with Karl Marx’s residences, I wanted to tie down the historic specificity.

Incidentally, for some reason the façade of the house in Brussels where Lenin lived some years earlier is blurred out in Google Streetview. I have never seen that before, for any other building.

https://twitter.com/nwbrux/status/1552571193588420608?s=21&t=kJc6zfSPa660YN8rv4qemQ

Anyway, I emailed a couple of Lenin experts to see if anyone knew where the Second Congress was held, and the author of this biography replied recommending that I buy his book. I did, but it was not my top priority, and I have only now got around to reading it.

Lenin’s life is of course interesting because he changed the world. He created a revolutionary movement and took power in an empire. He inspired generations. He was responsible for the deaths of multitudes, in many cases personally. So we are entitled to ask how this came about.

Sebestyen is good on the basics. Russia was seething with revolutionary movements in the late nineteenth century. Lenin’s genius was to bind them together with a shared ideology and a centralised political direction. He was helped by literacy and by the organisation of printed party newspapers. As a succession of weak governments in Russia collapsed, starting with the Tsar, he was in the right place at the right time, because he had planned to be. And he ruled with terror for a couple of years, before he died.

He had also endured years of exile, along with his wife and his other long-term partner (they knew about each other perfectly well). He was already a celebrated figure; when he was shipped from Zürich to Russia in the famous sealed train, the likes of Stefan Zweig and James Joyce passed sardonic comment. By the time he took power, his health was failing, and his early death was accelerated by wounds from an assassination attempt. There is an interesting human story there.

Unfortunately I cannot really recommend this particular biography. For a start, it does not actually answer my question about the venue of the Second Congress, as the author had assured me it would. I caught several misspellings of names of minor figures, which looked orthographically suspect to me and where Google instantly confirmed my suspicions. A couple of memorably gory incidents of state violence were either not confirmed or flatly contradicted when I checked other sources. Many of the good bits are simply copied without comment from Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife (though I suspect that’s true of a lot of Leninology).

I will have to resign myself to the loss from historical memory of the location of the rat-infested flour warehouse where Lenin and the comrades argued in 1903. But this has scratched my itch to know more about the man. You can get it here.

This was the top unread non-fiction book on my shelves. Next on that pile is What If?, by Randall Munroe.

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Saturday reading

Current
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Scary Monsters, by Simon A. Forward
Sprawl, ed. Cat Sparks

Last books finished
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher
Doctor Who: The Seventh Doctor: Operation Volcano, by Ben Aaronovitch and Andrew Cartmel
Alaska Sampler 2014: Ten Authors from the Great Land, eds Deb Vanasse and David Marusek
The Initiate, by Louise Cooper
Dalek Combat Training Manual, by Richard Atkinson and Mike Tucker
The Lost Skin, by Andy Frankham-Allen
Manifesto, by Bernardine Evaristo
The Life of Col. Samuel M. Wickersham, ed. Edward Wickersham Hoffman

Next books
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

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July 2017 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

We had two lovely family trips, one to south-east Belgium for the National Day, where we took in Bouillon, Sedan and the caves of Han-sur-Lesse:

Though some of the cuisine was less healthy:

And another trip to London, for F’s 18th birthday, where I don’t seem to have taken many pictures apart from this one of the Tower.

I wrote some important pieces that month, including one on the Hugo artist categories whcih I hope will come to fruition soon, my advice for new Doctor Who viewers, a piece for Slugger on Brexit, and a piece for EurActiv which was shamelessly ripped off by the Daily Express.

I read 27 books that month, but a lot of them were rather short, and I see that I did not get around to blogging them until September.

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 30)
1688: A Global History, by John E. Wills
New Europe, by Michael Palin
The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth
Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 by David Kynaston
Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (YTD 13)
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro
The Angel Maker, by Stefan Brijs
The Double Deckers, by Glyn Jones

sf (non-Who): 1 (YTD 51)
Sultana’s Dream, by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Doctor Who, etc: 15 (YTD 33)
Short Trips: The Quality of Leadership, ed. Keith R.A. DeCandido
Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Glass Prison, by Jacqueline Rayner
Decide Your Destiny: The Spaceship Graveyard, by Colin Brake
Decide Your Destiny: Alien Arena, by Richard Dungworth
Decide Your Destiny: The Time Crocodile, by Colin Brake
Decide Your Destiny: The Corinthian Project, by Davey Moore
Decide Your Destiny: The Crystal Snare, by Richard Dungworth
Decide Your Destiny: War of the Robots, by Trevor Baxendale
Decide Your Destiny: Dark Planet, by Davey Moore
Decide Your Destiny: The Haunted Wagon Train, by Colin Brake
Decide Your Destiny: Lost Luggage, by Colin Brake
Decide Your Destiny: Second Skin, by Richard Dungworth
Decide Your Destiny: The Dragon King, by Trevor Baxendale
Decide Your Destiny: The Horror of Howling Hill, by Jonathan Green
Decide Your Destiny: The Coldest War, by Colin Brake

Comics: 2 (YTD 14)
It’s Dark In London, ed. Oscar Zarate
Re-#AnimateEurope: International Comics Competition 2017, ed. Hans H.Stein, by Jordana Globerman, Stefan “Schlorian” Haller, Štepánka Jislová, Noëlle Kröger, Magdalena Kaszuba, Davide Pascutti and Paul Rietzl

5,500 pages (YTD 35,900)
5/27 (YTD 43/142) by women (Light, Munro, Hossain, Rayner, Globerman/Jislová/Kröger/Kaszuba)
1/27 (YTD 14/142) by PoC (Hossain)

The best of these were the two on British history, Common People, which you can get here, and Austerity Britain, which you can get here. The worst was Angel Maker, which I found repulsive, but you can get it here.

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2022 Lodestar Award

As before, just noting without specifying my preferences that I have read all of this year’s finalists for the Lodestar Award for Best New Writer.

Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer. Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Yes, ma’am,” I say.

You can get it here.

Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I lurch up from my straw bed, where I’ve been festering with a twisted stomach all night, turning my wooden hairpin over and over and over in my hand like a thick chopstick.

You can get it here.

The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik. Second paragraph of third chapter:

“I know you were,” I said grimly, taking it, but her expression didn’t change; probably my tone didn’t sound very encouraging. So I added, “If you were going to say no, it wouldn’t have jumped us,” a little pointedly, because she should have figured that much out by then. A mal smart enough to have been quietly lurking in her floor pillows—floor pillows she’d probably inherited from a previous New York enclaver—for years and years, conserving its energy and slurping up anyone other than her who was unlucky enough to be left alone in her room—which is the kind of thing enclavers do, invite friends over for a study group after dinner with the understanding that one of them is going to arrive first and make sure the room is all right—hadn’t just leapt at us because it suddenly lost all self-control. It had done it because Chloe was about to get on board with me, meaning that especially delicious me was about to become a much harder target.

You can get it here.

Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko. Second paragraph of third chapter:

“I’m not hiding,” I lied, humming with manic cheer as I swept through the gilded Imperial Suite hallways, balancing a sloshing tureen on one hip and a bundle of scrolls on the other. “I’m busy. You haven’t had your coneflower tea yet, have you?”

You can get it here.

A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Surrounded by markers and pieces of construction paper, thirteen year-old Nina sat cross-legged on the living room floor, staring at a scanned copy of Rosita’s portrait. She had to make an ancestral chart for class; it was a social studies project worth 10 percent of the class grade. Due to her tribe’s enrollment requirements, Nina already knew the recent branches on her family tree, so the project should have involved minimal research. And initially, yeah, it had been easy. First, Nina Arroyo had written her name, date of birth, and birth town on the bottom of a bright green piece of poster paper. Two branches extended upward: Richie N. Arroyo (father, bookstore owner) and Alicia T. Arroyo (mother, translator). Next, her parents grew four grandparents (one living, three deceased), who grew eight great-grandparents (three living, five deceased), who grew sixteen great-great-grandparents (all deceased). And that’s when things got tricky, since Nina’s teacher would never accept that Great-Great-Grandma Rosita was born in the 1870s (give or take) and died over 150 years later. But everything Nina knew about her ancestor supported this impossible truth.

You can get it here.

Victories Greater Than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders. Second paragraph of third chapter:

My phone is jittering with all the gossip from Waymaker fandom and random updates about some Clinton High drama that I barely noticed in the midst of my Marrant obsession … and then there’s a message from Rachael on the Lasagna Hats server.

You can get it here.

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Ninth Doctor Adventures: Old Friends

Trailer:

As previously noted, I’ve been increasingly enjoying the Big Finish audio adventures with Christopher Eccleston reprising his role as the Ninth Doctor, and this was another good set installment. Unusually the three stories are a singleton and a two-parter, so you’ll need to plan your listening accordingly.

The first story, Fond Farewell, is set in an intergalactic funeral parlour where the decedents are resurrected in replica to preside over their own memorial ceremonies. Roger Zelazny had a similar idea in his short story “Walpurgisnacht” (collected in the original and better Unicorn Variations). All is not what is seems, as the deceased archæologist who the Doctor wishes to honour has left a complex situation of romance and memory.

Heavy star power in the form of Juliet Stevenson as the grieving widow, though Emily Taaffe (a rare Irish voice) is more dominant as one-off companion Sasha. It’s by David K. Barnes, who also wrote the First Doctor/Second Doctor mashup Daughter of the Gods and one of the episodes of Doctor Who: Redacted. Good enough.

The two-parter Way of the Burrymen / The Forth Generation brings together Eccleston, Cybermen and the Brigadier (this is not a spoiler as they all feature on the cover). It is by Roy Gill who wrote the first of the Class spinoff audios and a Tenth Doctor story. The Tardis lands in Edinburgh in the present day where there is anthropology, the Forth bridge, and tragic doomed romance.

Jon Culshaw does a very good and respectful job of evoking Nicholas Courtney in his later years (and of course the very first UNIT adventure also featured the Cybermen). But there is a lovely dynamic between the two lovers at the centre of the story, played by Warren Brown and Elinor Lawless. A good cap to the first dozen Eccleston audios.

You can get the set here.

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Make Your Brain Work, by Amy Brann

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As he heard Stuart’s voice on the other end of the phone he felt his shoulders relax slightly. Although he wasn’t sure what he would work on with his coach today, he knew that for the three months he’d been working with Stuart, they always made progress and he felt better after the calls. Ben started to recount the day’s events, starting with arriving at work to see that the trainee accountant, Jane, who was doing her placement with him currently, had failed once again to follow his instructions. When Jane got into the office he had practically yelled at her, saying that if she didn’t learn to follow simple instructions she’d never make it at this firm. Although he did apologize later, she was still being slow with everything she had to do.

I like to read self-help books occasionally, and this was an interestingly different read, based on the proposition that a lot of our mental behaviour can be analysed in terms of the parts of the brain stimulated (or not) by various activities and the neurochemistry involved. There is a part of me that dislikes the thought that my perceptions and feelings are anything more (or less) than completely rational reactions to my accurate and perfect understanding of reality. But I found that liked Brann’s approach to taking a closer look at what is going on within the brain, and finding better ways to process the things the outside world flings at us. Understanding a process is usually the first step to influencing its outcome. So I got a bit more out of it than I had hoped. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next up is The Kosovo Indictment, by Michael O’Reilly.

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The New Unusual, by Adrian Sherlock and Andy Frankham-Allen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘Better late than never, Miss Travers,’ he said, glancing at the wall-mounted clock. It was almost 6pm.

Another in the series of Lethbridge-Stewart novels from Candy Jar books, this takes the Brigadier and crew, including Anne Travers, to Australia to investigate mysterious alien eggs which exert a peculiar influence on the minds of those who touch them. There are aliens behind it all of course. As is normally the case for this series, it’s well done and will keep me reading more of them. You can get it here.

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Moon Zero Two, by John Burke

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I wondered what this slob’s line was. Or, rather, what Hubbard’s line was going to be. It was less than half a century since the Moon had really been opened up, and already we had not only bureaucrats by the score but hired thugs muscling a way in for the Hubbards of the world – the Hubbards who had gutted the world and now wanted … what?

This is the novelisation of a film which I watched a couple of years ago because it was set in 2021. Here’s the film’s trailer:

The novelisation is by John Burke, author of over a hundred books (mostly novelisations and tie-ins), of which the best known is his treatment of the Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. I was very pleasantly surprised. Where the film stuttered a bit in terns of style and tone, Burke has gone for a relentless noir vibe in the novelisation, which also enables him to smoothe over some of the awkward bits in the story. I thought it came across much better on the page than on screen. You can get it here.

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July Books

Non-fiction 8 (YTD 62)
The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt
A Short History of Kosovo, by Noel Malcolm
Stability Operations in Kosovo 1999-2000: A Case Study, by Jason Fritz
The Smell of War, by Roland Bartetzko
Presidential Election, by John Danforth et al
Make Your Brain Work, by Amy Brann
Heaven Sent, by Kara Dennison
Hell Bent, by Alyssa Franke

SF 10 (YTD 60)
Guy Erma and the Son of Empire, by Sally Ann Melia (did not finish)
Victories Greater than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders
The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente
The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik
Moon Zero Two, by John Burke
Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko
A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger
Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell
Soulstar, by C.L. Polk (did not finish)
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 18)
The Unofficial Master Annual, ed. Mark Worgan
The New Unusual, by Adrian Sherlock and Andy Frankham-Allen

5,100 pages (YTD 43,700)
11/20 (YTD 69/167) by non-male writers (Northcutt, Brann, Dennison, Franke, Melia, Anders, Valente, Novil, Ifueko, Little Badger, Maxwell, Polk)
4/20 (YTD 24/167) by non-white writers (Ifueko, Little Badger, Polk, Rushdie)

315 books currently tagged “unread”, 1 less than last month

Reading now
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
The Initiate, by Louise Cooper
Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher

Coming soon (perhaps)
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Manifesto, by Bernardine Evaristo
Alaska Sampler 2014, ed. Deb Vanasse and David Marusek 
Sprawl, by Cat Sparks
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
The Kosovo Indictment, by Michael O’Reilly
The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall
“Tangents”, by Greg Bear
Mr Britling Sees it Through, by H. G. Wells
Voorbij de grenzen van de ernst, by Kamagurka
Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney
The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
The Clockwise War, by Scott Gray
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
What If?, by Randall Munroe
Empire Of Sand, by Tasha Suri

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Enola Holmes and the aristocratic appellation

Just a brief note on the film which we watched a week ago. Millie Bobby Brown, who we already knew as Eleven in Stranger Things, is great as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’ smarter younger sister Enola, as is Helena Bonham-Carter as their mother. It’s a lot of fun.

BUT. The chap at the centre of the mystery (such as it is) is referred to as Viscount Tewkesbury, although he also has the title Marquess of Basilwether. Normally, someone who holds both a marquessate and an earldom is referred to by the former rather than the latter. (Except if the two titles are from different jurisdictions, in which case they will be referred to by the earldom title when they are in the appropriate place, but Tewkesbury is in England and it does not sound like Basilwether is anywhere outside England.)

A long but interesting Facebook discussion prompted me to do more research, discovering that only three women in England have ever held a marquessate in their own right. The first was Anne Boleyn, who was not Marchioness but Lady Marquess of Pembroke; the second was George I’s lover Melusine von der Schulenburg, created Marchioness of Dungannon but known as the Duchess of Kendal as it’s the higher title; and the third was the curious case of Jemima Campbell, Marchioness Grey, whose title was created for her grandfather in 1740, but he died almost immediately after, so she inherited it at the age of 16 and held it for the remaining 57 years of her life.

The other massive plot hole is that we are supposed to believe that Tewkesbury / Basilwether’s vote is critical to pass legislation in the house of Lords. In fact, hereditary peers could not take their seats at the time the film is set until the age of 21, and though we are not told Tewkesbury / Basilwether’s age, the actor is only 17. (Quite apart from the fact that it’s never been possible to whip the House of Lords as tightly as that.)

As I said, apart from that, I really enjoyed it, and Millie Bobby Brown, who produced it as well as starring at the age of 16, is clearly someone to watch.

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District 9

District 9 won the Ray Bradbury Award from SFWA (effectively the Nebula for Dramatic Presentation) the first year after it was repurposed, beating Avatar, Coraline, Moon, Star Trek and Up. As previously noted, it actually topped the nominations poll for the Hugo and came close to winning. In a surprising divergence, it ranks 5th on one IMDB rating but only 32nd on the other.

None of the cast had been in previous Hugo, Nebula or Oscar-winning films; they are all South African, and this is the first of any of those films set in that country.

This was as good as people had assured me it would be. It is set in Johannesburg in a slightly different timeline to ours, where several years ago, a spaceship full of aliens arrived in the sky over the city and millions of them came down to the earth’s surface; they are all accommodated in appalling squalor in a camp near the city, and the authorities (mostly white South Africans) decide to forcibly move them to another more distant camp, which will be equally squalid and violent but less visible to the world.

To start with what I didn’t like so much, there are not all that many black characters, though it has to be said that almost all the human characters are pretty evil and most of them are white, which tells its own story. The plot is centred on one white man who finds himself transforming into an alien, and undergoes a character shift as a result. There are so many interesting roots here – the body horror is reminiscent of The Ark in Space, the situation with the aliens from Ian McDonald’s Sacrifice of Fools, the aliens themselves are very well realised.

Also, the action sequences, well done as they are, go on a bit too long, to the point that you start to notice that there is not a lot of actual plot.

But it’s still pretty good. The standout performance is Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe, set up as the stooge for the alien clearing operation. This was his first major film appearance; apparently he improvised most of his lines. He is tremendously watchable and human, even while he becomes more physically alien – and of course that is part of the message.

Unusually, this is based on a short film rather than a written work or a play. Alive in Joburg, from 2006, has a very similar scenario, but is only six minutes long, and lacks the Peter Jackson production values.

This is the 51st Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury-winning film that I have watched in this sequence. I have been trying to do overall summaries when I reach every tenth film, but miscounted this time. My definitive and unassailable ranking of them all is as follows (the eleven most recent in red):

51) The Canterville Ghost (Retro Short, 1945)
50) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Retro Short, 1944)
49) Curse of the Cat People (Retro Short, 1945)
48) The Sixth Sense (Nebula, 1999)
47) Heaven Can Wait (Retro Long, 1944)
46) The Incredible Shrinking Man (Outstanding Movie, 1958)
45) A Boy and His Dog (1976)
44) Pinocchio (Retro Short Form, 1941)
43) Destination Moon (Retro, 1951)
42) Slaughterhouse-Five (1973)
41) The War of the Worlds (Retro, 1954)
40) Sleeper (Hugo/Nebula 1974)
39) The Incredibles (Hugo 2004)
38) The Princess Bride (1987)
37) 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
36) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1990)
35) Fantasia (Retro Long Form, 1941)
34) Return of the Jedi (1982)
33) Edward Scissorhands (1990)
32) Bambi (Retro, 1943)
31) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
30) WALL-E (2009)

29) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
28) Howl’s Moving Castle (Nebula 2006)
27) Moon (2010)
26) Young Frankenstein (Hugo/Nebula 1975)
25) Soylent Green (Nebula 1973)
24) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Retro, 1946)
23) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
22) District 9 (Bradbury 2010)
21) Serenity (Hugo/Nebula 2005)
20) Stardust (2008)

19) The Truman Show (1998)
18) Aliens (1986)
17) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
16) Dr Strangelove (1965)
15) Jurassic Park (1993)
14) Pan’s Labyrinth (2007)
13) A Clockwork Orange (1972)
12) Superman (1978)
11) Contact (1997)
10) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Hugo/Nebula 2001)
9) Galaxy Quest (Hugo/Nebula 2000)
8) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
7) Blade Runner (1983)
6) Back to the Future (1985)
5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
4) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
3) Star Wars (Hugo/Nebula 1978/77)
2) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
1) Alien (1979)

Next: Inception.

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Saturday reading

Current
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
The Initiate, by Louise Cooper
Swordheart, by T. Kingfisher

Last books finished
Heaven Sent, by Kara Dennison
Hell Bent, by Alyssa Franke
Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell
Soulstar, by C.L. Polk (did not finish)

Next books
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Manifesto, by Bernardine Evaristo

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June 2017 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

The month of the 2017 UK general election, where I provided BBC commentary again. The election of course left Theresa May dependent on the DUP for her parliamentary majority.

I also had two work trips to London, one of which had sidebars to Coventry for a client meeting and Canterbury for a conference – where I also caught up with my oldest first cousin, R.

I read 27 books that month.

Non-fiction: 9 (YTD 25)
Belgian solutions 1, by David Helbich
The Case for Impeachment, by Allan J. Lichtman
Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America, by Donald J. Trump

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper
Europe In The Sixteenth Century by H. G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse
Walking the Woods and the Water, by Nick Hunt
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, by Yuval Noah Harari
In Xanadu, by William Dalrymple

sf (non-Who): 10 (YTD 50)
The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, translated by David R. Slavitt
Warriors ed. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling
Acceptance, by Jeff VenderMeer
Dune, by Frank Herbert
De piraten van de Zilveren Kattenklauw by “Geronimo Stilton” [Elisabetta Dami]
HWJN by Ibraheem Abbas
A Woman of the Iron People, by Eleanor Arnason
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Doctor Who, etc: 5 (YTD 18)
Short Trips: Defining Patterns, ed. Ian Farrington
The Infernal Nexus, by Dave Stone
Joyride, by Guy Adams
The Stone House, by A.K. Benedict
What She Does Next Will Astound You, by James Goss

Comics: 3 (YTD 12)
Professor Bell 1: De Mexicaan met twee hoofden by Joann Sfar
Professor Bell 2: De Poppen van Jerusalem by Joann Sfar
Marzi: A memoir, by Marzena Sowa

7,300 pages (YTD 30,400)
6/27 (YTD 38/115) by women (Cooper, Rowling, “Stilton”, Arnason, Benedict, Sowa)
1/27 (YTD 13/115) by PoC (Abbas)

Great to reread In Xanadu, which you can get here, and to read for the first time both A Woman of the Iron People, which you can get here, and Artemis Cooper’s bio of Patrick Leigh Fermour, which you can get here. Donald Trump’s Great Again is as awful as I expected, but you can get it here.

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The Kröller-Müller Museum; with Bosch, and a reunion

Anne and I took the opportunity of Belgium’s National Day last week to, er, get out of Belgium, and return to the Hoge Veluwe and the Kröller-Müller Museum, which we had previously visited 17 years ago in 2005. Again we stayed in the luxurious Hotel Sterrenberg; again, we spent most of Friday wandering around the museum, which boasts a fantastic sculpture park and an impressive indoor art collection.

Lots of pics of Art here. It was particularly amusing to return to Jean Dubuffet’s “Jardin d’émail” and try to reproduce the photos we had taken on a less crowded day on our previous visit.

This is the whole “Jardin d’émail” from outside.

There is a lot more. The odd Hepworth:

A very sensual “Love” by Joseph Mendes da Costa:

These are the Rocky Lumps II by Tom Claasen, made after the first Rocky Lumps succumbed to too many children climbing on it.

Indoors they have the world’s second largest Van Gogh collection.

But also other artists who I am less familiar with, like Fernand Leger and his “Soldiers Playing Cards” (1917):

And Charley Toorop and her fascinating self-portraits.

Finally, there was an exhibition of photographs under the title of “Mother, Wonder” by Roni Horn, all of landmarks (Icelandic hills, I think) that look vaguely like breasts.

Oh, also finally, here is Lois Weinberger‘s 2010 “Green Man”. Made of cactus. You can fill in the obvious joke for yourself.

On the way up the previous day, we stopped in ’s Hertogenbosch, home town of the great medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch, and visited the Jheronimus Bosch Art Center. This is a former church with no original art by Bosch, but with accurate reproductions of pretty much all of his surviving work, arranged in chronological order. I found this a fascinating way of presenting the artist’s work, and really got a lot more out of it than from the usual one or two works by him in a larger gallery.

There’s a glorious reconstructed astronomical clock with the souls of the Saved ascending to heaven at the end of time:

And finally (really finally this time), after we’d finished up at the Kröller-Müller Museum, we went just a little further to Apeldoorn and met up with A, our former au pair in 2003, who we had not seen since she was expelled from Belgium in 2004. She hadn’t changed a bit, and we had a lovely dinner with her and her partner M, before going home on the Friday night.

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Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon

Second paragraph of third story (“Ghost of a Chance):

It sort of got me. Maybe because she was so tiny and her hair was so white. Maybe because, white hair and all, she looked so young and helpless. But mostly, I think, because of what she said. “There’s something following me.” Not “someone.” “Something.” So I just naturally hauled out after her.

I got this in 2020 expecting that the title story would be a finalist and indeed likely winner of the 1945 Retro Hugo for Best Novelette, and indeed it won by a long way. But it took me until now to get around to reading the rest of the collection. These are all above average stories for the pulp era, with women characters who show signs of three-dimensionality, and some great ideas. “Killdozer!”, the story of a large machine possessed by alien forces, is still the standout of the lot. You can get it here.

I was struck that in the story “Chromium Helmet”, the villain’s name is Wickersham, which was my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Her nephew, Lieutenant-General Cornelius W. Wickersham, had just been appointed head of the New York National Guard when the story was written in 1946, so it was a name in the news.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020. Next is The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell, though I think I’ll take the chance to read all of my unread Lychford novellas.

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Lost, Not Stolen: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election, by John Danforth et al

Second paragraph of third chapter:

According to Michigan election officials who certified the results, President Biden carried Michigan by a margin of 154,188 votes out of 5.5 million cast.113 Biden received 50.6% of the vote and Trump received 47.8%.114 In 2016, Trump carried Michigan by a margin of 10,700 votes out of roughly five million cast.115 Trump received 47.3% of the vote.116 Clinton received 47.0%.117
113 Michigan Election Results 2020, POLITICO (last updated Jan. 6, 2021), https://www.politico.com/2020-election/results/michigan/; Michigan Bureau of Elections, Audits of the November 3, 2020 General Election 1 (2021), https://www.michigan.gov/documents/sos/BOE_2020_Post_Election_Audit_Report_04_21_21_723005_7.pdf.
114 Michigan Election Results 2020, supra note 113.
115 Id.
116 Id.
117 Id.

A short but very stern report signed by eight leading American conservative lawyers; the two I had heard of are former senator John Danforth, who was briefly the US ambassador to the United Nations in 2004, and Ted Olsen, who was solicitor-general under the younger Bush and whose wife was killed on 9/11. The actual author of most of it is presumably an unnamed researcher working for one of the eight (my money would be on Michael W. McConnell, who is a university professor and thus has access to the necessary resources of both young people and information).

In any case, it’s very straightforward: the report simply summarises all 64 lawsuits initiated by the Trump campaign and its supporters in the six key states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and describes why each was lost or withdrawn. I don’t think it will be news to anyone reading this that there is simply no evidence of fraud on behalf of the Biden campaign in those states at all, let alone anything large enough to have affected the outcome. It’s forensic and not too long (69 pages).

I dabbled in this issue a bit myself, on the morning after the 2020 election when a journalist friend called me for comment on Trump’s threat to take the election result to the Supreme Court. At a moment when a lot of commentators were holding their fire (in many cases because they were still in bed), I said on the record that Trump had no case, and that even if he did, he’d have to fight through lower level courts first. I consequently found my name popping up in mentions in Chinese (both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and presumably the mainland as well), Indonesian and Vietnamese as well as the less unusual SpanishPortugueseItalian and Greek.

I did not think I was doing anything more than stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated, and this report does it at greater length and more effectively than me. I spoke, of course, before the 6 January 2021 attempt to overthrow the democratic results of the election, which Trump incited and directed, so it still needs to be said. You can get the report here.

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The Unofficial Master Annual 2074, ed.  Mark Worgan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

A student at the London School of Economics, Delgado did not complete his degree. He only lasted 18 months working in the business sector before pursuing his dream of being air actor at the age of 20. Starting out in repertory, through sheer determination, hard work and natural talent, he became a familiar figure on film, television and radio. The list of names he worked with is a who’s who of film stars, including Alex Guinness, John Mills, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Diana Dors, Rex Harrison, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The diversity of that list shows that, whilst often typecast as the villain, Delgado was far from being a one-trick pony. He could lend his talents to a variety of genres, from the swashbuckling adventure and Hammer horror, to pantomime and comedy.

Another of the unofficial annuals, following the unofficial Doctor Who annuals for 1965, 1972 and 1987, this takes the Delgado!Master as the central character and has him endure various adventures of his own. One or two of them could have benefitted from a firmer smack of the editor’s hand, but in general it’s an entertaining exploration of one of the most important secondary characters of the show. There’s a particularly good early one with the Monk.

My copy is in the Omnibus edition with the unofficial 1965 and 1972 Doctor Who annuals, and also includes a few Seventh Doctor/Ace stories in case the series had been continued.

Out of print, sorry!

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May 2017 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I started the month in Loughbrickland but immediately travelled to London for the third leg of my 50th birthday, in The Sun Tavern.

Later in the month I went to Strasbourg…

…Andorra, with its public sculptures by Dali…

…and Berlin, where I didn’t take any photos. But back in Brussels, I paid a visit to the site of the 1927 Solvay conference, beside the European parliament.

By the end of the month I was girding my loins to go to Belfast again for yet more election commentary.

A good month for reading, aided by some long flights and other journeys, and a couple of sunny weekends of sitting in the garden.

Non-fiction: 4 (YTD 16)
Descartes’ Clock, by Gary Powell
Broederschap: Pleidooi voor verbondenheid / Fraternité: Retisser nos liens, by Frans Timmermans
The Innocent Man by John Grisham
Katherine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen, by Josephine Wilkinson

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (YTD 9)
The Parrot’s Theorem, by Denis Guedj
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth
Every Step You Take, by Maureen O’Brien
A Motif of Seasons, by Edward Glover

sf (non-Who): 14 (YTD 40)
The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin
All The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

A Taste of Honey, by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson
The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle
This Census-Taker, by China Miéville

Lavondyss, by Robert Holdstock
The Jewel and her Lapidary, by Fran Wilde
The Winter Long, by Seanan McGuire
The Stormcaller by Tom Lloyd (did not finish)
Argonautica by Valerius Flaccus, translated by J.R. Mozley
An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, by J. Mulrooney
Everything Belongs to the Future, by Laurie Penny
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 13)
Short Trips: Ghosts of Christmas, ed. Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
The Dalek Factor, by Simon Clark
The Squire’s Crystal, by Jacqueline Rayner

Comics: 3 (YTD 9)
Butterscotch, by Milo Manara
Ms. Marvel Volume 5: Super Famous, by G. Willow Wilson and Takeshi Miyazawa
Saga, vol 6, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan

8,500 pages (YTD 23,100)
12/28 (YTD 32/80) by women (Wilkinson, O’Brien, Jemisin, Anders, Johnson, Wilde, Maguire, Penny, Bujold, Rayner, GW Wilson, Staples)
7/28 (YTD 12/88) by PoC (Seth, Jemisin, KA Wilson, LaValle, Miyazawa, Staples)

The best of these were A Suitable Boy (you can get it here), All the Birds in the Sky (you can get it here) and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (you can get it here). The worst was The Stormcaller (you can get it here).

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Moon (2009 film)

Moon won the 2010 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating District 9 (which won the Bradbury/Nebula), Up, Star Trek and Avatar. It was actually only third in terms of nominations, and won the award by only 15 votes on the final count, its lead over District 9 having steadily narrowed. I have not been keeping track, but I think that is one of the closest results in this category.

IMDB users rate it 17th and beneath the other four nominees on one system, and 26th and behind all but District 9 on the other, which is surprisingly low for a winner. I have not yet seen District 9, but I must say that while I enjoyed Moon, I would probably have voted for Star Trek myself. It looks like a strong field – I’d have certainly nominated Watchmen and Children of Earth too. (The End of Time would have been a better fit for the following year.)

There’s one returnee from a previous Hugo winner: Sam Rockwell, playing the protagonist Sam Bell in all his versions, was Fleegman the publicist in Galaxy Quest ten years earlier.

Kevin Spacey, the protagonist of American Beauty, is the voice of the computer GERTY, but we don’t see him so no pics.

Sam, our hero, whose surname ends with -ell and is played by an actor whose first name is Sam and whose surname ends with -ell, is mining Helium-3 on the far side of the Moon. He encounters his double and realises that they are just the latest in a series of clones of the real Sam, who are activated in sequence by the evil Lunar Industries and then casually disposed of. His wife, who he thinks he is speaking to on Earth, turns out to have died some time ago; his little daughter is now a teenager.

It’s not so different in concept from The Sixth Sense, but I liked it a whole lot more. It’s a modest plot, with the core concept of discovering that your identity is not what you thought it was, and the desperation of trying to work out what is going on when all available facts seem unreliable. There are some silly bits as well – why mine Helium-3 on the far side? Is animating clones by remote control really less expensive and more reliable than just training and sending new astronauts? But I think it succeeds by not trying too hard.

The effects are convincing – actually I was reading the novelisation of Moon Zero Two while watching this, which reminded me that it’s part of a long tradition. The music is great as well. So I’m putting it exactly half way down my list of Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners, in 25th place out of 49, below Young Frankenstein and above Howl’s Moving Castle, which is still a pretty good ranking.

Next up: District 9.

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Saturday reading

Current
Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen

Last books finished
Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko
The New Unusual, by Adrian Sherlock and Andy Frankham-Allen
A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger

Next books
Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

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Half Life, Shelley Jackson; End of the World Blues, Jon Courtenay Grimwood; Nova Swing, M. John Harrison; The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente

These were the four novels that won the BSFA, Clarke and Tiptree Awards in 2007 for work of 2006. I should say also that the Tiptree jury gave a special citation to James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, which I too found an excellent book. When I read it in 2007, I wrote:

This is surely a model of how to write a biography. Although her subject died in 1987, Julie Phillips has been through all her private papers, done the necessary bureaucratic sleuthing through her career, dug into her parents’ background, interviewed the elderly first husband and many other relatives and friends, reflected on the wider social and literary currents of the time illustrated by the main narrative, and supported it all with extensive notes.

But that’s not enough to make a successful biography. To do that you have to not only know your subject; you have to have chosen someone who is in some way fascinating in their own right, and be able to communicate that fascination to your readers. Phillips has done that admirably. I haven’t read a lot of Tiptree’s work (having said which, there isn’t so very much to read), but I think you could safely give this book to someone who had never heard of her, even someone who never reads science fiction, and sill expect them to enjoy it.

Most readers, however, will have bought this book largely to find out more about Tiptree/Sheldon’s writing; we don’t get anything about that until halfway through, but I don’t think anyone will be bored by the first fifty years of Sheldon’s life – privileged Chicago upbringing, childhood safaris to Africa, a Christmas elopement and disastrous first marriage, World War II and the CIA, psychological research, a better choice of second husband.

And then the decade of fame as SF writer James Tiptree, Jr, producing strange, memorable stories, winning Hugos and Nebulas for them, engaging in intimate correspondence with the luminaries of the genre, but all under a pseudonym which was eventually exposed. I had not realised, however, that the Hugo and nebula for “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” both came after the revelation of her true identity.

The one weak point in Phillips’ analysis has been well illuminated by Farah Mendlesohn: she doesn’t convincingly explain Sheldon’s attitude to sexuality – in fairness, a complex question, and one to which we will probably never know the real answer (although Farah’s answer is more convincing than Phillips’).

I am in a rush this morning in Georgetown, just a few miles from where Alice Sheldon and James Tiptree lived and died, so don’t have time to write more about this brilliant book. But we are promised that the paperback will include more photographs, and more of Sheldon’s own art, so I may find myself buying it all over again. [So far, I haven’t.]

You can get it here. It won the relevant Hugo and Locus Awards as well, and got a citation from the BSFA (who did not make a Non-Fiction award that year).

The four novels were all new to me. I read these in reverse order of popularity on LibraryThing, so the first up is the second of three Tiptree books in this post, Half Life, by Shelley Jackson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The fact was conceived on the bus from Hollywood, where Mama’s big break had just fallen through. She had fired her agent in a fit of pique and was going back to New York, where they loved her. They being the regulars at a bohemian nightclub where she did a theatrical number that combined song and dance with dramatic monologue. Men wet their hankies when she did the sad song, and ladies in top hats licked their lips and sent her flowers. Mama peevishly plucked greasy bits out of a bag of doughnuts. Across the aisle sat my father, with sandwiches and soda and a dollhouse on his lap.

I really enjoyed this, and am somewhat stunned to find a host of much more negative online reviews. I’m used to not liking things that everyone else likes (for an example, see below), but it’s unusual for me to like something that a lot of people don’t. It’s a story about a conjoined twin in a world which is like ours except that, due to more nuclear testing, there are a lot more conjoined twins, giving rise to a whole subculture and liberation movement, and it gives Jackson the excuse to explore the politics of selfhood and medical intervention in a firm but ludic way. The sort of book that the Tiptree/Otherwise Award should be honouring. You can get it here.

The BSFA Award for Best Novel went to End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Elegant, middle-aged, and happily naked, the Japanese woman lifted herself onto one elbow, revealing a heavy breast. “He’s busy.”

I enjoyed this one too. There are two intertwined plots: an Englishman in Tokyo trying to find out who killed his wife, and a girl from a far future dying earth who has ended up in our time. I got slightly lost in places but I really enjoyed the ride. Jesse Hudson suggests that Grimwood is the 21st century Zelazny; I take the point. You can get it here.

The Clarke Award went to Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Vic’s home was a coldwater walk-up in South End which he inherited, along with his entree into the business, from a retired entradista and tour guide called Bonaventure. He had two rooms and a shower. He never cooked or ate there, though there was an induction stove and the place always smelled of old food. It smelled of old clothes, too, old tenancies, years of dust; but it was close enough to the event aureole, which was his professional requirement. Vic slept on a bed, he sat in a chair, he shaved in a mirror; like anyone else he bought all those things at a repro franchise at the end of the road, the day he moved in. He kept his zip-up gabardine jackets and Inga Malink artisan shirts in a wardrobe from Earth, rose veneer over boxwood circa 1932AD, that far away, that long ago. Out one window he had a good view of a bridge; out the other it was a segment of the noncorporate spaceport, primarily weeds and chainlink fence.

I disliked Light, the first volume of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, and didn’t much enjoy Empty Space, the third volume. True to form, I found Nova Swing unmemorable and uninteresting. A lot of people rave about Harrison’s work, but I find him pretty unreadable. You can get it here.

End of the World Blues and Nova Swing were both on both the BSFA and Clarke ballots, but the other nominees were all different and I have not read any of them. The BSFA for Short Fiction went to “The Djinn’s Wife”, by Ian McDonald.

Finally, as already discussed, the Tiptree Award went jointly to Half Life and to The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, by Catherynne M. Valente. The second paragraph of the third chapter of the latter is:

Instead, he glanced awkwardly at the steaming food. On the little square of silk lay a glistening roasted dove, fat peaches and cold pears, a half loaf of buttery bread covered in jam, broiled turnips and potatoes, a lump of hard cheese, and several sugared violets whisked away from the table garnish. He drew from his pocket a flask of pale watered wine, the great prize of his kitchen adventures.

I enjoyed this a lot. It’s a revision of the Arabian Nights, in a fantasy world of many kingdoms and races, with a much more gender-balanced set of narratives than the original (which was itself not all that bad). Lots of nesting of narrative within narrative; lots of old orders ripe for subversion or overthrow; some witty moments as well. Half Life is still my favourite of these four, but In the Night Garden is close. You can get it here.

Apart from two winners and a Special Mention for the Phillips biography, the Tiptree Award had a relatively restrained honor roll of seven novels, none of which I have read; one, The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow, was also on the BSFA ballot. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. None of the Hugo or Nebula finalists was on the BSFA, Clarke or Tiptree lists.

Next in this sequence: The Carhullan Army, by Sarah Hall; Brasyl, by Ian McDonald; and Black Man, by Richard Morgan.

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The Lackprofil of Klingenberg

Here I am, at the age of nineteen, at the bottom of a ditch. I spent four months in the summer of 1986 working on an archæological site near Heilbronn in Germany, in the village of Klingenberg, as a volunteer on the payroll of the Land of Baden-Württemberg. (Actually the only time in my life when I have been directly paid by the taxpayer, though I’ve had plenty of taxpayer-funded work since.)

The site was a promontory fort that had been identified by cropmarks in photos taken a few years earlier. Two curved ditches had cut off the end of the hill from potential invaders. The excavation, overseen by the genial Dr Biel, was to record and rescue the remnants of a mesolithic settlement of the Michelsberger culture before a housing estate was built on it. (Pictures are from Dr Biel’s article, which is in German.)

The field, incidentally, belonged to the Count of Neipperg, who died last year at the age of 102. In the summer of 1986 he was in his mid-sixties, and would occasionally drop by to keep an eye on things. His great-great-grandfather, the dashing Adam Albert von Neipperg, famously seduced and later married the Empress Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s second wife. (The Count who I knew was descended from Adam Albert by his first marriage.)

Archæology has a dreadful career structure. I was doing it to scratch an itch in my year off between grammar school and university, and never planned to go into it long term. But it’s truly fascinating to find artifacts left behind six thousand years ago. Some of the clay from buildings or ceramics still had visible thumbprints made by people who died a thousand years before Stonehenge was built. It makes you think.

The picture at the top was taken by my then colleague Jan Grabowski (who has since become rather well-known for other reasons) as we created a rather wonderful thing under the direction of Dr Biel: we took transverse sections of each of the defensive ditches, and then placed canvas against them, splashed varnish over the canvas liberally to make it stick to the exposed soil, let it set and then peeled away the canvas with the soil still sticking to it, to preserve the appearance of the transected ditch. The varnish fumes got quite overpowering and we were allowed only a minute or so in the pit at a time. I’m in the less exciting outer ditch; both are on display in the museum in Stuttgart.

You can see that the version of the inner ditch on display in the Stuttgart museum is reversed.

It may not be clear from the above, but the end of the settlement at Klingenberg was not a happy one. The black marks from the inner ditch are the remains of a burnt palisade, which had broken and fallen inwards. At the bottom of the ditch we found an enormous aurochs horn, which mush have adorned the fortification as a show of strength to outsiders, ultimately unsuccessful. We found one corpse untidily dumped in a rubbish pit. A forgotten conflict, whose only remaining record was the marks in the soil and the charcoal in the ditches. As I said, it makes you think.

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Three books about Kosovo

I am working on a small project about Kosovo at the moment, and improving my reading around the subject. No detailed write-ups as those are for my project notes.

Kosovo: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Unfortunately there is very little direct evidence about conditions in Kosovo during those earlier centuries of Bulgarian and Byzantine rule. We can assume that the Slav population that had settled in Kosovo was brought within the cultural realm of the Bulgarian empire, which means that it would have been included in the Bulgarian dioceses of the Orthodox church. Thanks to the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius (and their followers) in the ninth century, the Slavs had a liturgy and other texts in their own language, written in either of two newly invented alphabets: Cyrillic and Glagolitic. The western macedonian town of Ohrid developed strongly as a cultural and religious centre in the ninth and tenth centuries, and by the end of Tsar Samuel’s reign the archbishopric of Ohrid included bishoprics in Skopje, Lipljan (Alb.: Lipjan; a town just south of Pristina) and Prizren.1 Although the formal division of the Christian Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox did not occur until 1054, it would not be anachronistic to describe this Bulgarian Christianity as Eastern in the ninth and tenth centuries; the roots of the conflict between East and West went back a long way. (The Slav liturgy was at first violently rejected by the Roman Church, on the grounds that God spoke only three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin).
1 Gelzer, Patriarchat, p. 4; Gjini, Ipeshkivia, pp. 79-80.

Magisterial stuff, which unfortunately takes us only to 1997 and the emergence of the KLA. Unlikely to be bettered as a summary of historical knowledge, especially in the medieval period. You can get it here.

Stability Operations in Kosovo 1999-2000: A Case Study, by Jason Fritz. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The President and NATO members supported an air campaign because it excluded the obligation of ground forces, pressured Milosevic toward compliance, and limited allied exposure to losses. The rejection of a ground option satisfied domestic political interests across the Alliance, but limited the seriousness of the threat posed to Milosevic. NATO publicly ruled out ground forces to assuage citizens concerned about starting a new war, but the announcement also signaled to Serbia the limits of U.S. and NATO commitment.94 The guidance from the NCA, discussed in the following section as the plan developed, provided a limited set of strikes to draw Serbia back to negotiations, going so far as to give a break in hostilities to signal NATO’s preference for a bargain, while allowing for an accelerated series of strikes if that failed. Theoretically it was an ideal strategic approach: a limited use of force to compel the adversary to a negotiated settlement. It limited friendly, enemy, and civilian casualties, did not tie down U.S. forces into an occupation, and while Serbian allies such as Russia would disapprove, it was limited enough to keep Russia on the sidelines. Of importance after the operation began, not only did NATO reject a ground component, it refused to plan for any contingency that included ground forces in Kosovo.
94 Nardulli et al., Disjointed War: Military Operations in Kosovo, 1999, 22–23.

Looks at the NATO intervention, especially the air campaign in 1999, from the perspective of lessons to be learned by the US military, of which the most general conclusion is that it is sensible to think ahead of what the political leaders say they want this week, and plan for what they might want next week. You can get it here.

The Smell of War, by Roland Bartetzko. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Be a little coward! Take it easy in the beginning and don’t volunteer for any dangerous assignments. Wear your body protection, even when the whole squad is laughing at you.

Personal account of a German who fought for the Croats in Bosnia and for the KLA in Kosovo. Author subsequently convicted of murder, attempted murder and terrorism for a post-war bomb attack on a Serbian government office. You can get it here, but I think you can give it a miss.

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The Darwin Awards, by Wendy Northcutt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

If humans are no longer evolving, the premise of the Darwin Awards is flawed. And even if the premise of the Darwin Awards is valid, do the particular stories in this book actually represent instances of evolution in action?

I got this as a freebie at Eastercon (I think as a prize in a raffle or something like that). It’s an anthology of accounts of deaths and gruesome injuries caused (supposedly) by the foolishness of the victims, the central concept being that be removing themselves from the human gene pool, the victims deserve awards for implementing natural selection. It was not really to my taste. You can get it here.

This was actually my top unread book by a woman, at the time I acquired it. Next on that list (and acquired subsequently) is Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Aleksievich.

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Guy Erma and the Son of Empire, by Sally Ann Melia

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He paused to look up at St Joseph’s Cathedral, said to be the beating heart of the Dome. At the top of the entrance stairs, there was a massive door where a bishop and head teacher waited for him.

Bought this back in 2015 because it was being hyped relentlessly by the author; took until now to read it; bounced off the leaden prose and won’t finish. You can get it here.

This was both my top unread book acquired in 2015 and the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on both of those piles is Jocasta, by Brian Aldiss.

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