Nebula nominees

As seen in SF Signal:

Novels: The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner is owned by more LibraryThing users than any two other nominees combined.

Novellas: only four??? One of those by Michael Burstein??? And the panel couldn’t bring themselves to add anything else???

Novelettes: again, interesting that the jury couldn’t bring themselves to add anything. Peter S. Beagle has a shot at winning the Hugo/Nebula double, the only one of last year’s Hugo winners to be on the short list (Spin having been pruned from the long list).

Short Stories: haven’t read any of them yet, except helen Remembers the Stork Club, downloaded from FictionWise and read in new York last week (and by coincidence, it is set there). Will report back.

Scripts: Go Doctor Who!

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Small world

My new intern started today. She spotted my Valentine’s day present, and informed me that her brother was a friend of Terry Nation’s son, and she had spent many happy childhood hours trundling along inside the original daleks.

If she’d put that on her CV, I’d have hired her immediately without going through all this interviewing nonsense!

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Got a few hundred thousand quid? Want an airline?

The Hungarian state airline MALEV has just been sold to the Russians for 200 million forint. At today’s exchange rates, that is £530,000, $1.05 million (US), or just under €800,000.

Compare with the value of your house, and ask yourself if you should be saving up for your own airline instead. And ths is not the first time – indeed, MALEV is rather expensive by eastern European standards; back in 1999 an Israeli investor bought the Bulgarian national carrier, Balkan Air, for only $150,000, though that deal rapidly turned out to be just as dodgy as you would expect.

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Numbers answer

A few days ago I asked what the next pair of numbers in this series is:

49, 1
50, 10
53½, 21½
55, 25
60½, 35½
62, 38

has posted the correct answer:

The diference between the squares of each pair of numbers is 2400:
492 – 12 = 2401 – 1 = 2400 (48*50)
502 – 102 = 2500 – 100 = 2400 (40*60)
53½2 – 21½2 = 2862¼ – 462¼ = 2400 (32*75)
552 – 252 = 3025 – 625 = 2400 (30*80)
60½2 – 35½2 = 3660¼ – 1260¼ = 2400 (25*96)
622 – 382 = 3844 – 1444 = 2400 (24*100)
702 – 502 = 4900 – 2500 = 2400 (20*60120)

And so on up to 1200½2 – 1199½2 = 1441200¼ – 1438800¼ = 2400 (1*2400).

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February Books 22) William Howard Taft & 23) 1912

22) William Howard Taft: A Conservative’s Conception of the Presidency, by Donald F. Anderson (, .com)
23) 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs – the Election That Changed the Country, by James Chace (, .com)

The last president whose biography I read was John Adams, who shares with Taft the distinction of running for re-election and coming third, which is difficult in a two-party system. (In Adams’ case, of course, the voting system was different, and he really came second behind the Jefferson/Burr ticket.) Neither Adams nor Taft had an especially distinguished presidency, but sometimes failure can have more lessons than success.

Taft did not especially want to be President anyway. It is striking that of the many photographs of him in these two books, the one in which he looks happiest – indeed, is beaming joyfully – was taken on 4 March 1913 as he handed over the White House to Woodrow Wilson. Hand-picked by Theodore Roosevelt as his successor, he lacked the basic political skills to survive – his only previous elected office was a judicial post in his native Ohio, and his experience of executive government, running America’s newly acquired Philippines colony, gave him no taste of dealing with other political leaders.

Once Roosevelt had lost patience with Taft, he contested the Republican nomination for the 1912 election and was basically cheated out of it by Taft’s supporters. He then broke from his own party and ran on a far more left-wing ticket than any major candidate before or since. Taft was crushed in the election and won only two states, Utah and Vermont. The Republican party, which had won eleven of the previous thirteen presidential elections, won only three of the next ten.

Anderson’s book (published in 1968) is a decent enough dissection of Taft’s character and mistakes, but I had hoped for a bit more of a human dimension. Chace’s book, published just after his own death in 2004, has loads of human interest – it starts with Taft weeping at Roosevelt’s graveside in 1919 – and I particularly learnt from it about the Socialist leader Eugene Debs, but it was curiously unfocussed, and poorly edited in places.

Both books, however agreed on the two incidents in Taft’s presidency which particularly drove Roosevelt to feel that his legacy had been betrayed: the first being a public row between Taft’s Secretary of the Interior and the head of the Forestry Service who had been appointed by Roosevelt; and the second a move to reverse an industrial merger which had been approved several years earlier by Roosevelt. Crucial in advising Taft badly in the first case, and actually taking the steps which so offended Roosevelt in the second, was Taft’s attorney-general, George W. Wickersham, a New York corporate lawyer memorably described as having the political sensitivity of an ox. His younger sister was my great-grandmother.

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February Books 20) Spin State

20) Spin State, by Chris Moriarty (, .com)

This had been on my shelf for a couple of years, and I finally picked it up because the sequel is on my current reading list. I wish I’d got to it sooner. This is a very tightly woven and tightly written tale of artificial intelligence, activist miners, murder and identity. Catherine Li, sent unwillingly to her home planet to investigate the mysterious death of a famous scientist, is a memorable heroine. Also features embittered Irish militants, mourning the fact that their native land is now covered in glaciers. Recommended.

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. The devil wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
  2. The perks of being a wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  3. The good earth by Pearl S. Buck
  4. The secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  5. The bean trees : a novel by Barbara Kingsolver
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This plane was supposed to have taken off 45 minutes ago, but the snow is now drifting down heavily over New York and the captain has just told us it may be another hour and a half at least before we take off. Oh well, I have plenty to read and had written tomorrow off for jet-lag anyway.

One of my fellow speakers from the conference shared a car with me to Portland airport but by the time we got there it was already clear that his flight home to Washington would be cancelled. We worked out that if he could be driven on to Boston he would have a pretty good chance of catching the train home. I hope he made it.

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Report from Maine

I haven’t had Internet access since Friday morning, my longest period of being “unwired” for years (am posting this from my Blackberry, so not even sure if I will be properly online before I get home on Monday morning).

Anyway, it’s been a pleasant little conference, in the town just next to the other Belfast. I’m sorry not to have visited the town named after my birthplace, but you can’t have everything.

Most conferences I attend are organised by institutions which are themselves engaged in the issues; this one appears to be entirely staffed by local citizens, wanting to contribute to the cultural life of their community. They have flown me and a bunch of other experts way up to the frozen north, far from my usual haunts in this country. The speakers have almost all been of top quality, and the organisers very hospitable (I was billeted with a very nice Quaker couple).

Snow is still piled high here, in the front yards of the pretty wooden houses, with Penobscot Bay gleaming in the low winter sunlight. Intellectually demanding, but physically relaxing. Now it’s time to go home; leave Camden at 1130; home about 1000 tomorrow, so that’s sixteen hours of travel.

There is at the back of my mind some idea that Rockport, Maine, has an sfnal connection – some well-known writer associated with it, perhaps. Any ideas who I might be thinking of?

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February Books 19) The Iraq Study Group Report

19) The Iraq Study Group Report (, .com)

When I dropped in on my old friend Dan Serwer in his office at USIP the other day, he proudly thrust the famous Baker/Hamilton report at me, gloating that over 2 million copies of it had been downloaded. It was only when I looked inside this morning that I realised Dan himself had been the Iraq Study Group’s executive director.

For a main text of less than a hundred pages, aimed exclusively at policy-makers concerned with the question of What Next?, it is not bad – especially the recommendations on better US diplomacy in the region, ie Iran and Syria, and the Israel/Palestine dispute. Shame that doesn’t appear to be happening.

I missed, though, any serious analysis of how the greatest military machine the world has ever known, run by the most powerful democratic state in history, had managed to get itself in this fix in the first place. So it feels very incomplete.

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February Books 17) James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

17) James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (, .com)

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.

(Also, it has been interesting to read this alongside Elizabeth Bear’s Carnival over the last few days.)

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. Confessions of a shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
  2. Pet sematary by Stephen King
  3. Angels & demons by Dan Brown
  4. MLA handbook for writers of research papers by Joseph Gibaldi
  5. The runaway jury by John Grisham
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(This is essentially a test to see if I can post using my Blackberry)

In the middle of reading the Julie Phillips biography of Tiptree/Sheldon, so it seemed strangely appropriate to land at Washington National (“Ronald Reagan”) airport this morning, not so far from where she lived and died.

On previous trips I’ve tended to stay downtown, but this time I’m in Georgetown (just around the corner from Barnes & Noble) and on the way in I felt I was seeing the cityscape from a different perspective; the cathedral on the hill particularly striking, but also the tension between the Lincoln Memorial on one side of the river, turning its back almost on Arlington House across the water.

Anyway. By peculiar coincidence is at a conference nearby, but it doesn’t look like our schedules will mesh.

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February Books 16) 100%

16) 100%, by Paul Pope (, .com)

Again, a fruit of this discussion from last week, and the only one I spotted in Forbidden Planet in New York. was impressed by this, and so am I. It’s a very well done story of six people, forming and unforming as couples, in the city where I am typing this but in the year 2038; the background is fairly incidental, and it reminded me a bit of Jason Lutes’ Berlin, though with less politics. criticised the artwork, but I thought it was fine.

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For the record

Review of three books, as submitted to a semi-academic journal at the weekend.

The Three Yugoslavias: State-Building and Legitimation, 1918-2005, by Sabrina P. Ramet
Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style, by Elizabeth Pond
Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo, by Iain King and Whit Mason

The Balkans haven’t gone away, and the legacy of the wars of Yugoslav succession still troubles policymakers. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, sent to Bosnia in the hope that he might be able to cut it free of international tutelage, will return to Germany in mid-2007 having failed in his mission; while the EU is anxiously bracing itself to confront Russia, and perhaps even division among its own members, over the future fate of Kosovo. The three books considered here each report on different aspect of this policy puzzle.

Sabrina Ramet has produced a weighty and scholarly contribution to the historical debate around the South Slavic territories. Her historical account of how the interwar kingdom (first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and then Yugoslavia) was founded on a flawed constitution, and proceeded to lose its way through political oppression and royal dictatorship, is comprehensive and convincing, based on archival research and a full survey of the available literature. Democracy never took root in the interwar period, and it is therefore not so surprising that it has had trouble consolidating in Serbia since 2000.

Her account of the second world war will be unwelcome in some quarters. She clinically dissects the relationship between the Italian and German occupiers, the horrendous NDH regime in Croatia and Bosnia, the quisling Nedic government in Serbia, and the Chetniks and Partisans, finding little in favour of any (except perhaps the last named). She also examines the role of Archbishop Stepinac and the Catholic Church, and finds little evidence for their complicity in genocide; although it is clear that both helped the NDH leaders to flee once the war had been lost, and that of course individual Catholics, including clergy, ignored their leadership’s position against atrocity.

Her account of the Communist period is again detailed and thorough, looking at the efforts of Tito and his successors to impose a socialist system on the country, and to weather the requirements of economic reform and nationalist tension. She is particularly effective in describing the “Croatian spring” of 1968-71, but does not ignore developments in the other Yugoslav republics, and Kosovo, in that period. And her blow-by-blow account of Milosevic’s rise to power, and how Serbia’s leadership brought the federation to disintegration and war, is authoritative and comprehensive.

Unfortunately her account loses steam in its coverage of the ten years since the end of the Bosnian war. The final chapters, one on Kosovo and the other on Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, are almost perfunctory. Very little secondary literature has been used, the narrative appearing in some sections to be drawn entirely from online news archives, and there is not enough original analysis to make up the difference. In the chapter on Kosovo, not a single Kosovo Albanian source is cited, Ramet having relied instead on Belgrade media and the international press. She is too good a scholar for this to make her account a biased one, but it is very noticeably incomplete; the strength of the earlier sections of the book, its careful examination of first-hand sources in the language formerly known as Serbo-Croat, here becomes a weakness.

Ramet has chosen a provocative framing device for the historical narrative: she moors her analysis in a discussion of state legitimacy, rooted in principles of liberal universalism: that state structures can only survive if they enjoy political, moral and economic legitimacy. It is a thought-provoking approach, and she examines each of the three Yugoslavias – the inter-war kingdom, Tito’s state, and the Milosevic union from 1992 – in that light and finds each of them wanting. It is, however, notable that her examination of post-Dayton Bosnia takes a different tack, comparing the international administrators to either Kemal Ataturk or the politicians of Weimar Germany, without the same thorough evaluation of Dayton’s legitimacy in itself.

And while this theoretical framework is indeed attractive and on the whole convincing, it is a difficult one to apply to societies and states which are ethnically divided. At a couple of points, Ramet suggests that one of the fundamental problems was “ethnic politics”, by which she seems to mean the emergence of political parties which are representative of single ethnic groups. Leaving aside the question of how, precisely, this development might be avoided or reversed, I am not convinced that it is so important in itself. Tito’s Yugoslavia, and King Alexander’s earlier rearrangement of the country into banovinas, failed in part precisely because they attempted to ignore or minimize the ethnic dimension; meanwhile the former Yugoslavia’s neighbours, Romania and Bulgaria, appear to have achieved a certain level of stability despite having political parties which represent ethnic minority groups. Most ethnically heterogeneous societies need to develop a way for different ethnic groups to mobilize, and political parties are surely not to be excluded.

Ramet’s lack of reflection on the scholarship relating to the most recent period, and her too brief treatment of Kosovo, are remedied by the two other books reviewed here. Elizabeth Pond, in her survey of the Balkans and EU integration, considers not only the former Yugoslavia (sans Slovenia) but also its neighbourhood in her excellent survey of the state of scholarship on the entire region since the fall of communism. She has carefully sifted through the best political analyses available, and pulled them together country by country: Romania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. In each case she looks at the very country-specific problems of nation- and state-building, and the prospects for sustainable stability in the Euro-Atlantic context.

Pond’s book would make an excellent introduction to the region for, say, a newly appointed international official, or an interested student. Its one weakness is that, while the regional perspective is clearly and lucidly presented, there is rather less about the real policy debates in European capitals, and between the two sides of the Atlantic, which will set the terms of the Balkans’ integration. She also has no time for the sorts of conspiracy theorist who can be found on any internet site dealing with the Balkans, but this is less of a loss.

[This section heavily cut from here.] Iain King and Whitney Mason, themselves former employees of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), have written a damning indictment of the international efforts to put that territory back on its feet since the NATO campaign of 1999. From the very beginning, international officials conceded to thuggery on the ground, committed by both the ethnic Albanian majority and by the remaining ethnic Serbs. UN officials retreated into a colonialist mentality, failing to implement their mandate and questioning their own ability to do so. (Kosovo's electricity supplies now are in worse shape than they were before the conflict.) The highest ever per capita expenditure by the international community on post-conflict reconstruction has delivered indifferent results.

King and Mason have a list of prescriptions as to what could be done better in future. The two key points for me are, first, that any such international mission needs to move fast to establish the rule of law as a matter of extreme urgency; and second, that the end goal must be clear right from the beginning. The determination to put off deciding on Kosovo's future independence led directly to the discrediting of the UN mission within Kosovo and the violence of March 2004, and has exacerbated uncertainty in the wider region. I think this is the first book-length piece on the Kosovo protectorate, and it's a thorough analysis.

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February Books 15) The Invisibles [#1]: Say You want A Revolution

15) The Invisibles [#1]: Say You want A Revolution, by Grant Morrison (, .com)

After this discussion I tried my local comic shop in Leuven and found very few of the titles recommended there. I did remember discussion of The Invisibles, strongly recommended by


, equally strongly disrecommended by


. I am surprised that any of them managed to get worked up about it either way. Dane McGowan, high-school drop-out from Liverpool, is recruited by the Invisibles, a motley group of eccentrics with super-powers working (presumably for the forces of Good) behind the scenes of world politics. There is a storyline set in a hidden London reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere – I see that actually dates from two years after The Invisibles first came out, so I wonder if Gaiman has acknowledged any inspiration? Difficult to believe he hadn’t read it. There is then another storyline set in the French Revolution with the Marquis de Sade playing a key role, but this got a bit self-indulgent and had a peculiar sub-plot involving Percy and Mary Shelley which didn’t seem to fit in with the rest. Perhaps it is all revealed in subsequent volumes, but I won’t rush to buy them.

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. The five people you meet in heaven by Mitch Albom
  2. The devil wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
  3. The secret life of bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
  5. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
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February Books 14) Preacher [#4] Ancient History

14) Preacher [#4]: Ancient History, by Garth Ennis (, .com)

The second half of Volume 3 in this series was devoted to the reminiscences of one of the main characters; Volume Four gives us three backstories about some of the background characters – the Saint of Killers, Arseface and Jesse’s redneck relatives Jody and T.C. – altogether more enjoyable than any of the previous volumes, I thought, and in fact I would recommend readers wanting to get to know the series to start with this volume rather than any of the previous three.

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
  2. My sister’s keeper : a novel by Jodi Picoult
  3. The red tent by Anita Diamant
  4. The purpose-driven life : what on earth am I here for? by Rick Warren
  5. The world is flat : a brief history of the twenty-first century by Thomas L. Friedman
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February Books 13) Murder at the Worldcon

13) Murder at the Worldcon, by J.D. Crayne (FictionWise)

This is basically a country-house murder mystery except that the setting is not a country house but a mid-1960s WorldCon. To be honest the identity of the murderer is fairly obvious from the first chapter, once you work out who of the characters described in detail is the Detective, the Sidekick and the Villain. But it’s a fun and fairly brief read.

Also I look forward to someone publishing a key to the identities of the real-life characters identified here by pseudonyms. Big-Hearted Howard isn’t even a pseudonym, really, and I am guessing that Gary Corneille is Jerry Pournelle, but I don’t immediately identify any of the rest; also the murderer’s surname is very nearly an anagram of a well-known (but now deceased) famous SF author.

V’z abg ernqvat gbb zhpu vagb gung, nz V? “Dhragva Ebqrffn” ybbxf gb zr yvxr n ersrerapr gb “Cbhy Naqrefba”, nygubhtu gur fheanzrf ner sne sebz orvat cresrpg nantenzf.

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On the East Coast

I am in the US next week finishing up here, but landing tomorrow afternoon, with a whole day to kill in New York on Monday (it’s a federal holiday). Given that almost everyone I know is out of town or busy, any recommendations for what I should do?

(Recovering from jetlag and book-shopping can be taken as read.)

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