March Books 44) Venusian Lullaby

44) Venusian Lullaby, by Paul Leonard

I wasn’t overwhelmed with the only other Paul Leonard DW book I’d read, but I must say this one really grabbed me. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor used to tell us that “Klokleda partha menin klatch” meant “Close your eyes, my darling – well, three of them at least” (see here, at about 1:20 in). Here Paul Leonard has taken that throwaway line and constructed one of the best alien cultures I’ve ever read around it; reminiscent a little of both the pentagonal creatures of At the Mountains of Madness (though a lot less evil) and David Brin’s Alvin the Hoon, but faced with an imminent world-destroying tragedy – this is Venus of several billion years ago, still habitable though steadily deteriorating. It’s set immediately after The Dalek Invasion of Earth and before The Rescue, so the Doctor is here with Ian and Barbara but no younger female companion. Leonard, like most writers, cannot write Hartnell’s Doctor especially well, but the story and the setting more than compensate. An unexpected pleasure.

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March Books 43) Halting State

43) Halting State, by Charles Stross

And so I start my reading of this year’s Hugo nominees (and am also now nearly finished Brasyl). I really enjoyed it a lot, though admittedly not every reader’s experience will be enhanced as mine was by discussing bits of background for the sequel with the author over the weekend. It’s a melding of genres, police procedural and cyberpunk, set in the Edinburgh of an independent Scotland in a few years’ time. The narrative voice is striking – three different viewpoint characters, but all told in the second person, as (quite deliberately) in a computer game. There are nods to all kinds of sf taproot texts, and an unnerving background theme of questioning reality. And Charlie’s prose seems somehow more under control than I can remember from any of his other books. My Hugo reading is off to a good start.

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March Books 41-42) Two more Doctor Who novelisations

41) Doctor Who – Planet of Giants, by Terrance Dicks
42) Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Terrance Dicks

Two quite different Terrance Dicks novelisations here. Doctor Who – Planet of Giants was literally the last First Doctor story to see print, in 1990; Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth was from much earlier in the sequence of publication, in 1977. In fact they are respectively the last and the first Dicks novelisations of Hartnell stories.

I’m slightly surprised to report that Doctor Who – Planet of Giants is the better novel, perhaps because it had only three episodes on TV rather than six and therefore Dicks has had to pad rather than summarise; and his own powers of invention, once brought to bear, are helpful. We do miss out on the broadcast story’s key selling point, the visual special effects of the Doctor and company miniaturised to an inch in height, but the plot as a whole does hang together, though fans of Barbara will (as usual) complain that Dicks doesn’t do her character much justice. And once again, as with Doctor Who and an Unearthly Child, Dicks finishes by telling us that the Daleks are out there waiting to start the next adventure which is a bit tedious second time round..

Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth leans a bit on the Peter Cushing film as well as on the originally broadcast story. Its most remarkable innovation, and improvement on the screen version, is the Daleks’ pet monster, the Slyther, which is much more terrifying on the page. But unfortunately a lot of the good bits of the TV story – the desperate chase across a deserted London in episode 3, and even the Doctor’s farewell to Susan at the end – are truncated and lose their effect. It’s still a good story but this comes across rather in spite of than because of Dicks’ efforts.

I’ve already read Doctor Who – The Rescue – probably Ian Marter’s best book – so will head for Doctor Who – The Romans by way of Venusian Lullaby.

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March Books 40) [In Search of Lost Time #5] The Prisoner and The Fugitive

40) [In Search of Lost Time #5] The Prisoner and The Fugitive, by Marcel Proust

This is Volume Five of the Penguin Proust, but actually includes two originally separate novels, called (not very surprisingly) The Prisoner and The Fugitive. But my March books list is already unfeasibly long, so I’ll list it here as a single entry.

The prisoner, overtly at least, is the narrator’s girlfriend Albertine, who moves in with him at the start of the book and (spoiler alert!) moves out at the end of The Prisoner, and then suddenly dies a few pages into The Fugitive. The translator says in her foreword that she thinks it entirely unrealistic to portray a young single upper-class woman cohabiting with a man she isn’t married to at the time period in question, even under the very secretive circumstances described in the novel (hence Albertine being described as a “prisoner”). I am not so sure. There was an awful lot going on under the radar screen in real life – indeed Proust is full of illicit and secretive love affairs, both gay and straight – and in a world where he thinks she is being sought after by every woman they meet, her secretly shacking up with him is not especially implausible.

There are some wobbly bits (again, the translator notes that Bergotte, a minor character, dies dramatically at one point but is being talked about as if still alive a few dozen pages later), but some great bits of description. That goes even more for the second part of the volume, The Fugitive, where the identity of the titular fugitive is much less immediately apparent, and the book starts off with loads of vicariously reported hot girl-on-girl action, and then spins out into a detailed and honest examination of the psychology of loss, with some very good sentences that almost qualify as one-liners. (But not quite. This is Proust, after all.)

Maybe I’m only now really getting into it, but it seemed to me that this was the most approachable volume yet of the five I’ve read, and I think I would actually recommend that someone wondering if Proust is for them should start here rather than with the first volume. It’s not as if the narrative is all that linear anyway. Having said that, those of you in the US will have to wait until 2018 to get this edition, or else get it shipped in from abroad.

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March Books 39) The Embarrassment of Riches

39) The Embarrassment of Riches: an interpretation of Dutch culture in the golden age, by Simon Schama

A massive huge book this, Schama’s attempt to get inside the heads of the Dutch in the last sixteenth and early to mid seventeenth centuries. He is very convincing on the impact of natural as well as political/military disasters, on the formation of Dutch identity after the formation of the state, on the role of religion and the family, and the whole thing is beautifully illustrated with paintings and woodcuts from the period. (I was particularly grabbed by Schama’s enthusiasm for Jan Steen.)

However, I could have done with a bit more of the historical outline – the dramatic events of 1650 are actually better described by Russell Shorto, and it is assumed the reader knows all about William the Silent – and the only two maps provided are a contemporary small woodcut of the Netherlands and an illegible attempt to show where the brothels of Amsterdam were located. If you’re only interested in the culture and not in the context, this would be a very satisfying book; but I like a little more framework to hang the pictures from.

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The Council of Nicæa and March Books 38) The Witch Hunters

Occasionally, by accident or design, I read two or more books with a common theme and combine them into a single livejournal entry (indeed, checking back I see I’ve done that four times this month). And usually I combine my Big Finish reviews into multiple posts, as an act of mercy to the vast majority of readers who aren’t interested. But this time, my reading and listening schedules happened to throw up a Who novel and a Who audio play with an identical central theme, though very different in the execution of that shared theme.

The Council of Nicæa is a relatively short audio play in the Big Finish range, by Caroline Symcox (who I last saw at MeCon). It brings Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor, his TV companion Peri Brown and new audio companion Erimem to the year 325 and the theological disputes over the nature of God at the eponymous Council. Supporting characters from history are the Emperor Constantine, his wife Fausta, and the competing theologians Athanasius and Arius.

The Witch Hunters, by Steve Lyons, is an early one of the BBC’s Past Doctor Adventures, set pretty firmly in TV chronology between The Sensorites and The Reign of Terror, bringing the First Doctor with companions Ian, Susan and Barbara to the village of Salem in Massachusetts in 1692, just in time for the infamous witch trials.

Both are stories in which there is no sfnal element in the historical context apart from the Doctor and his companions, and thus are very much rooted in the early traditions of the show. Both stories are a kind of response in Who terms to other writers – Symcox reacting against J. N. O. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, Lyons more favourably to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Both of them feature a historical context where, essentially, the bad guys are the mainstream authority Christians and the listener/reader is invited to sympathise with the underdog (Arius and his followers/the accused "witches"). In both cases, the youngest of the Tardis crew (Erimem/Susan) is instrumental in trying to change history in the favour of the underdogs, in both cases (and this is hardly a spoiler) unsuccessfully.

Symcox takes more liberties with the setting (Arius is portrayed as a young man and Athanasius as somewhat older; in fact the reverse was the case), as she is writing a more standard Doctor Who story and also has less time to do it in (less than 100 minutes, compared to Lyons’ 282 pages). As often with Who, the Doctor gains the confidence of the authorities rather implausibly rapidly, which then of course accelerates the amount of trouble he and his friends get into. The two key elements of the story are the didactic part, informing the average listener who is (safely) assumed to know very little of the Council of Nicæa, and the character development of Erimem, who sides with Arius partly out of national solidarity (Arius was from Alexandria, Erimem is an ancient Egyptian princess) but more out of a sense of fair play. She pleads that because 325 is her future, she should not be accused of trying to change the past. It all worked rather well for me, certainly much better than The Church and the Crown, an earlier audio with a similar concept except that the Doctor intervenes to force history into our timeline.

Lyons makes the reader work harder; he has more characters to follow (not just four in the Tardis crew instead of three, but a large chunk of the population of Salem) and more background knowledge is assumed. He is also sticking closer to the historical sequence of events, though The Crucible is explicitly referenced, with the Doctor and crew taking in the first performance in Bristol in 1954, and the Doctor then returning with Rebecca Nurse to take it in again. Actually Lyons handles the possibility of changing history a bit less convincingly than Symcox, with even the Doctor rather un-Doctorishly seduced by the possibility of intervening to save lives. He also requires the Tardis to operate rather more accurately than we saw at this stage of the show’s history. Balanced against this, there are a lot of pleasing references to the first few television stories. The narrative has its own drama, which carries the book in the end, but the Tardis crew rather end up with the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Anyway, I found it interesting to compare and contrast between the two approaches – same basic idea, but different format and different details.

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On Bosnia, Macedonia and Northern Ireland

I’ve been musing a bit about Hillary Clinton’s recent travails on the question of foreign policy. (The details are of interest only for the truly obsessed, but FactChecker has a good summary and I link below to the Washington Post take on each issue.) I can’t speak to the Rwanda or China issues, but I do happen to know a bit about the other three areas where there has been some discussion of her activities: Bosnia, Macedonia and Northern Ireland.

On Macedonia, I find her actually the most convincing of the three. This was just after the start of the NATO bombing in March 1999; there were big problems with the management of the flow of refugees driven out of Kosovo by Serbian forces, and the Macedonian government was balancing the country’s own internal stability against the demands being made of it by the international community. Clinton’s critics find her guilty of some exaggeration because the border was re-opened for refugees the day before her arrival, rather than as a result of her negotiation with the Macedonian authorities. In my view it’s clear that her visit must have been part of the overall US and NATO strategy to keep the Macedonians on board (the extent to which Hillary Clinton herself was involved in shaping that policy is, of course, another matter), and the timing of the opening of the border may well have been explicitly linked to her arrival the next day. In politics, cause does sometimes follow effect.

On Northern Ireland, her “instrumental” role was less relevant to the formal political process, dare I say it, than my own (I was the central campaign manager for one of the political parties in the 1996 elections, and worked as an aide to our party’s negotiators from June to December 1996, in the course of which my most substantial contribution was probably a paper on decommissioning which I wrote jointly with Stephen Farry.) She is confused on some of the details, but it’s fair to say that she was one of the more prominent among many contributors, and by her own choice concentrated on building up cross-community links among women’s groups. Her visits to Northern Ireland are only part of the story here, as the Clinton White House also successfully empowered a wider range of people, pulling them into the wider discourse, and presumably she was involved with that. Her schedule reveals significant preparatory work for the Northern Ireland visits on her own part, which is laudable.

On Bosnia, however, the inaccuracy of her recent statements has been extensively documented; her reminiscences are over-dramatic and simply at variance with the facts. It’s a bit unfair to assert, as some have, that there was no physical risk to visitors to Tuzla in March 1996 – we did not know then that the deployment of US troops for ten years in Bosnia would pass without a single combat casualty. And I even have some sympathy with her defence that she is merely human and cannot be expected to get everything right. But I cannot escape the feeling that Clinton was more impressed by the way she was hustled into her plane’s armoured cockpit for the landing in Tuzla than about anything else that happened on the visit. Her most unnerving experiences – which clearly made an impression – were actually supplied by the US military rather than by any local factors, and her brief moments of contact with actual Bosnians were completely forgotten.

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March Books 37) Doctor Who and the Sensorites

37) Doctor Who and the Sensorites, by Nigel Robinson

I was deeply underwhelmed by the TV version of this story, which fights off strong competition from The Web Planet to be probably the worst Hartnell adventure. Curiously, Nigel Robinson actually manages to smooth over the most awful bits of the narrative – the poor acting of the human characters, the poor characterisation of the non-humans – to the point where one feels that there is actually a decent sf tale in there somewhere, trying desperately to get out. Unfortunately the attempt is doomed to failure because of Robinson’s plonkingly awful prose style. Some day some keen fan will do a version of this – the Sensorites as they should have been written. Meantime this book is only for completists.

I’ve already read the next book in sequence, Doctor Who – The Reign of Terror, one of Ian Marter‘s better efforts, so it’s on to Terrance Dicks and Doctor Who – Planet of Giants next. Though I may stop off via The Witch Hunters.

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March Books 36) Pass the Port

36) Pass the Port: The Best After-Dinner Stories of the Famous

A collection of humorous anecdotes in aid of Oxfam assembled in the mid-1970s, and very much of its time (21 index entries for “Irish stories” but only 8 for “Jewish stories”). The “famous” assembled here are a peculiar bunch and say something very odd about who Oxfam thought would appeal to the connoisseur of after-dinner humour (also, this being a later edition, a number of the original contributors had died). Here, for instance, are the entries for a couple of random pages:

  • The Late Lord Inman, P.C., J.P., President of Charing Cross Hospital; Liveryman of London; Author; Former Cabinet Minister and Chairman of the B.B.C.
  • Fergus Munro Innes, C.I.E., C.B.E, Chairman, India General Navigation and Railway Company, 1973-78.
  • The Late Air Chief Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman, G.C.B., K.B.E., D.F.C., A.F.C., Vice-Chief of the Air Staff, 1953-57 (Prisoner of War, 1944-45).

I’m relieved to report that one or two of the jokes were actually funny. Here’s one I rather liked, though I think the delivery could be sharpened up a bit, though possibly Keith S. Showering (Chairman and Chief Executive, Allied Breweries Ltd.) was able to make it sing:

There were two Belgians and two Dutchmen who used to travel to work together on the same train.

After a while it became apparent to the two Dutchmen that the two Belgians had only one ticket between them, and on enquiring how they managed to achieve this, they explained that when the conductor was hear approaching from the other end of the carriage, the two of them left their seats, went into the toilet, and locked the door. When the conductor knocked on the door of the toilet saying, “Tickets please”, they pushed one ticket under the door, which was duly stamped and pushed back under the door again.

The Dutchmen thought this was a very good idea and the following morning bought one ticket between them, only to find that in their usual carriage there was only one Belgian. They told him what they had done and also told the Belgian that they presumed he must have a ticket as he was travelling on his own.

He said, he did not have a ticket at all and in answer to their enquiry as to how he proposed to manage to travel free of charge, he told them they would have to wait and see until the conductor arrived, but he had no doubt that he would manage it without difficulty.

As soon as the conductor was heard approaching the two Ducthmen immediately went to the toilet and locked the door.

A few moments later the Belgian followed them down the corridor and knocked smartly on the toilet door saying, “Tickets please”.

One Dutch ticket appeared under the door.

Sure, it plays to national stereotypes, and it would be difficult to get away with a joke about two men going into a public lavatory these days; but I travel enough on Belgian trains that it struck a chord.

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Easter feast

Anne had got a massive chunk of lamb for dinner yesterday, which was just about enough for seven adults (including my mother, and the future Mrs , and the future Mrs ‘s parents, who mainly speak Hungarian). I found a really good recipe for it, as follows:

Slow roast lamb

A big chunk of lamb
An onion
A clove of garlic
A little olive oil
Lots of fresh rosemary

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (400°F).
Chop the onion and garlic into a roasting pan. Put the lamb on top. Brush the lamb with the oil. Lay the rosemary all over the lamb.
Turn the oven down to 120°C (250°F) and put the lamb in on a middle shelf; and put a dish filled with water elsewhere in the oven.
After an hour, turn the oven down to 80°C (175°F) and cook for hours – at least five, better six or seven. Check from time to time that there is still water in the dish.

The rosemary really did seem to percolate deep into the lamb. (I stuck some cumin seed on as well, but it didn’t seem to have the same effect.) The slow roasting technique really does deliver fantastically tasty, juicy meat; I hereby resolve to always slow roast a big chunk of meat if I have time (have had success with pork this way too).

Along with it I did yer standard boiled potatoes, the braised celery and walnuts which had been successful in January (this time over-catered rather than under-catered) and two more vegetable recipes, both of which I had to adapt slightly to fit my resources.

Spiced Peas and Yogurt
(based on the Georgian recipe for green beans and yogurt with the obvious adaptation for when you discover you have no beans in stock)

400g/1lb peas
2 small onions
80g butter
1g cinnamon
3 cloves
2 garlic cloves
2g salt
1 small pot of natural yogurt
1g each of basil, tarragon, coriander, parsley, dill and whatever else you feel like

Boil the peas, and simultaneously sauté the onion in butter in a different pan.
Drain the peas and add to the onion along with the cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Cook on low heat for 10-15 minutes.
Grind up the garlic and salt, and mix into the yogurt.
Throw the other herbs into the peas, and cook for another minute, then turn into a serving dish. Pour the garlicky yogurt on top.

Of the various recipes I did last night this one was the most effort, but worth it.

The other vegetable recipe came from our faithful Good Housekeeping book, except that I used oregano instead of mint – partly because I suspected the peas might be fairly sweet (given the spices added) but mainly because I couldn’t find any mint.

Carrots with oregano and lemon

700g carrots (chopped into sticks rather than chunks)
salt and pepper
rind and juice of a lemon
1 tsp light soft brown sugar
15g butter
3g oregano

Cook the carrots for ten minutes. Drain thoroughly.
Throw all the other ingredients into the pan with the carrots, toss until the butter has melted, and serve immediately.

That is really absurdly simple, but tasted very yummy indeed.

There were no complaints, which is a good sign.

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Bernice Summerfield, season 3

I really liked The Greatest Shop In The Galaxy. Perhaps it helped that, by total coincidence, I was wandering around a supermarket myself while listening to it, but I felt the balance of humour and drama, of life-threatening horrors and time paradoxes while at the same time not taking itself too seriously, worked really well. Tremendous fun.

I was less impressed with The Green-Eyed Monsters. A lot of the humour was based on the idea that men can’t look after children. The plot didn’t really make much sense, and the denouement was fairly bathetic.

The Dance Of The Dead, however, was a real return to form: a claustrophobic setting of the doomed space ship, the return of the Ice Warriors, and psychic possession – all worked really well for me.

The Mirror Effect, exploring the inner psychologies of Benny and the other regular characters from the series, could easily have descended into self-indulgence, but manages to avoid it through good writing and good acting. The ending perhaps a little over the top, but otherwise this one held together.

In summary: The Greatest Shop In The Galaxy and The Dance Of The Dead excellent, The Mirror Effect OK, and The Green-Eyed Monsters less impressive. Also of course The Plague Herds of Excelis is set in the middle of this sequence.

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I’ve always been fascinated by linguistics – how it is that the same word can come up in different languages with the same meaning: English mother, German Mutter, Latin mater, Greek μήτηρ, Russian мать. But occasionally you get interesting variations of meaning for what is essentially the same word. The English word town is a cognate of Dutch tuin and German Zauntuin means “garden” and Zaun means “fence”. These must all come from a root word something like tūn, which is the Old English / Anglo-Saxon word for an enclosed space. So in English and Dutch, the word came to mean two different types of enclosure, one inhabited by people and the other by plants; whereas in German it came to mean the enclosure itself.

There aren’t many cognates of this word outside the Germanic language family, but there is one: the Celtic root represented by the Irish word dún, meaning fort, and the Welsh word dinas meaning city, which crops up in all kinds of places. Old English / Anglo-Saxon adopted this word, in the context of hill-forts, to mean the hills themselves; and as tūn became our word “town”, dūn became “down” as in the North and South Downs. (County Down is directly from the hill-fort at Downpatrick, Dún Pádraig.) The adverb describing a descent from the hill, “off the down”, ofdūne, turned into adown and eventually became our adverb down. So “down” and “town” are originally the same word, a legacy of iron age enclosures and linguistic melding.

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καὶ ἐξελθοῦσαι ἔφυγον ἀπὸ τοῦ μνημείου· εἶχεν γὰρ αὐτὰς τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις, καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπον· ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ. (Mark 16:8)

Last year I started a habit of posting bits from the Greek New Testament at Christmas and Easter. Which is nice and clever, but doesn’t really take you very far. I feel like something a bit different this Easter morning: the above is the original end of the Gospel according to Mark: And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

Mark is of course great in his blunt style of writing which none the less always suggests that he knows more than he is letting on. (All four of the Gospels have their pleasing quirks: Matthew requires footnotes for his frequent Old Testament allusions, Luke is just very well written compared to the others, and John takes the whole narrative from a completely different direction.) And I was struck by the use of the word ‘fear’ both here and two verses earlier: Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here

In fact the words used in Greek are subtly different. In 16.6 the word the angel uses to the women is the verb ἐκθαμβέω, to be astonished or amazed or gobsmacked or dumbfounded; in 16.8 it is φοβέω, which is of course related to the English word “phobia”, to fear. Don’t be surprised, says the angel; but the women are terrified.

In the end, there’s only so much enlightenment to be gained from poring over the original Greek and trying to nail down facts. The Gospels weren’t written as historical accounts, but as didactic documents, which tried to capture the experiences reported in ways that would make sense to worshippers a few decades later. We’ll never know exactly what the apostles experienced that day, and the days following. The details in the New Testament are contradictory (and in a couple of cases unconvincing). But all four gospels make it clear that Jesus’ body had physically disappeared from the tomb; and the other three (plus the later postscript to Mark, plus Acts and various allusions elsewhere) make it equally clear that many of the apostles experienced a personal encounter with him in the following few days and weeks, and that this direct experience of the risen Christ was the basis on which Christianity consolidated and developed to what it is today.

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March Books 35) Wandering Stars

35) Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Jack Dann

Not really very satisfied with this collection of “Jewish sf” stories. Perhaps I am over-sensititve to ethnic stereotypes, even by the ostensibly stereotyped, as a result of too much exposure to paddywhackery myself. It may seem an odd criticism, but I found it much more ethnocentric than I had expected: despite a recurrent theme of various non-human creatures claiming to be Jewish, in fact most of the stories totally play to stereotypes based on the mid-twentieth century Jewish experience in the United States, rather than on any broader exploration of Jewish identity or history. I’d be surprised if a European or Israeli Jew felt there was a lot here they could identify with. There is a truly awful story by George Alec Effinger. Rather disappointing.

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La Rusticana, Heverlee

Prompted by here and here we went up the road to try La Rusticana in Heverlee last night. Well, on the good side, the food was indeed excellent, the complimentary starters fantastic, my penne boscaiola really heavenly. On the less good side, Anne’s after-dinner cup of tea was made with heavily salted water (“Sorry! We used the wrong kettle!”), they initially forgot to bring our tiramisu (which was indeed delicious when it finally arrived), and two euro were mysteriously added to the bill (I don’t normally check, but I couldn’t actually read the total, added the numbers up for myself, and discovered the mistake). So good marks for food, and considering what and have said, we may just have been there on a bad night for service.

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March Books 33-34) Two more Who novelisations

I’m fairly steaming through these; at my reading speed, I can basically get through half a Who book on each leg of my commute. (I’m not working tomorrow or Monday, though, so you will be spared for the next few days.)

33) Doctor Who – Marco Polo is certainly the best of John Lucarotti’s three Who books (the other two being Doctor Who – The Aztecs and Doctor Who – The Massacre). Possibly the need to be fairly concise – cutting down from a seven episode story, rather than writing up from four – made a difference. It’s a cracking good story anyway, and the fact that we have only sound rather than video records of it makes Lucarotti’s presentation all the more valuable. He has a rather peculiar fascination with detailing the various different Chinese prawn dishes that the Tardis crew consume en route, but this of course just adds to the depth of the setting. Really rather a good one.

34) Doctor Who and the Keys of Marinus, by Philip Hinchcliffe from Terry Nation’s script, was only the third new Target First Doctor story (after Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet, Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, and the three 1960s ones) and only one more was published in the next four years. It seemed an odd choice at the time, and it seems an odd choice now; I can only assume that Hinchcliffe had some particular personal interest in the story (this was his third and last – so far – novelisation, the other two being the much more obvious choices of The Masque of Mandragora and The Seeds of Doom). It starts off somewhat juvenile in style, but picks up as Hinchcliffe gets into the story. The third episode (of six) drags a bit, but it’s a decent effort.

I’ve already read Doctor Who – The Aztecs, so next up is Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Next week.

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Arthur C Clarke

Came home last night to find the internet on the blink, so went to bed early and missed the news that everyone has been blogging about. Well, he created our world in so many ways: I loved his early short stories, I loved his mid-period novels, and I forgave the later collaborations. Sometimes his wit could baffle translators, but his compassionate vision of the future of humanity was always clear. This evening I will have another listen to the Radio 4 documentary from a few years back.

March Books 26-31) The Leela spinoff novels

26) Match of the Day, by Chris Boucher
27) Last Man Running, by Chris Boucher
28) Corpse Marker, by Chris Boucher
29) Psi-Ence Fiction, by Chris Boucher
30) Drift, by Simon A. Forward
31) Eye of Heaven, by Jim Mortimore

It’s interesting that the six Doctor Who spinoff novels featuring the Fourth Doctor and Leela are all from the more recent BBC series of Past Doctor Adventures rather than the earlier Virgin series of Missing Adventures; that all of them are set before K9’s arrival in Who continuity; and that four of the six are by Leela’s creator, Chris Boucher, who also wrote three of the five TV stories featuring her but not the metal dog. Obviously K9 is more successful with Romana or Sarah Jane (each of the Fourth Doctor’s departing female companions having ended up with one).

The four Boucher novels include two rather less exciting tales which appear to have slipped out of Blake’s Seven (for which Boucher was also script editor), and two rather good retakes of stories he wrote for Who. They all share an interesting pair of characteristics: Boucher writes Leela really well, and the Doctor really badly. Of course, like many an artist, he loves his own creations, and even slips a minor Blake’s Seven character into one of the books. But he finds it difficult to allow Leela to change or be changed by the passage of events – Jim Mortimore manages this much better in Eye of Heaven, discussed further below – so while his books are an adequate to excellent nostagia romp, they are not really great literature.

The most recent of the books, Match of the Day, illustrates this well. In a society obsessed with fighting (reminiscent of The Game, which came out at about the same time) Leela becomes, believe it or not, a duelling champion, with the Doctor rather implausibly her agent. A few well-aimed digs at the cult of celebrity, and the effective portrayal of Leela, rather sink into a peculiar writing idiom (adopted only for some passages, but still very annoying), the very unevenly sketched world and society in which our heroes find themselves for this adventure, and a plot which barely hangs together.

Last Man Running, which was Boucher’s first effort for the Past Doctor Adventures, is a little more successful, though the setting – Doctor and Leela bump into a survey team in a hostile environment – is very base-under-siege, and you can almost see the sets wobble. Leela herself gets some good lines and action, but then we discover that she is the ultimate warrior in a rather confusing conclusion. Apparently a lot of fans were disappointed when this came out, and I can see why.

Corpse Marker takes us to Kaldor City and the three surviving crew members from The Robots of Death, several years on, in a complex web of political intrigue and threat. Once again Leela gets some good bits, and for once Boucher’s world-building is on form: Kaldor City feels pretty real, and there are a number of very visual moments. One of the characters actually has escaped from Blake’s Seven, but I think I missed that particular episode. My caveats about Boucher’s portrayal of the Doctor still apply, though.

Psi-Ence Fiction was the most difficult of these titles to track down, and is certainly the best of the four Boucher novels. It is something of a re-take of Image of the Fendahl, with research in contemporary Britain (2001 rather than 1978, of course) unlocking dangerous space-time anomalies and tapping into the plans of sinister entities. The setting this time round is a university campus, a familiar setting which liberates Boucher from trying too hard at world-building (as noted above, not his strongest point), as he can rely on smart-aleck students, infighting academics, and the local police trying to sort things out. Leela, as ever, excels; the biggest problem with the book is the resolution, where the Tardis itself plays an unexpected role, and the ending is a bit of a cop-out. But it was a good read.

If Match of the Day and Last Man Running are escaped episodes of Blake’s 7, Drift, by Simon Forward, has escaped from the X-Files. Here we have a US special forces military operation in a snowbound New Hampshire village, which the Doctor and Leela get embroiled in. There are also two CIA agents (which is a mistake; they should be FBI) on the case with their own secret. There’s some great characterisation of a dysfunctional family (though not really of the Doctor or Leela), and lots of people get killed, yet at the end of the book one feels that not an awful lot has happened. The cold snowbound setting is reminiscent of Kim Newman’s Time and Relative, which was apparently published almost simultaneously.

I saved what is probably the best of these until last: Eye of Heaven, by Jim Mortimore, is a tale of Victorian adventure set in the South Pacific, specifically on and around Rapa Nui/Easter Island. The entire book is told in the first person, but by different narrators, Leela getting I guess about half of the chapters and most of the rest going to the English members of their expedition, though two are told from the Doctor’s point of view – not hugely successfully, but I’ve seen worse. Leela’s on-screen encounters with the England of bygone days were a delight, and the clash of cultures is equally fun here. The book’s narrative structure, interweaving chapters from different sequences of the narrative, is a successful experiment. There are a couple of wobbly plot concepts – the Doctor’s decision to sponsor the expedition, Leela’s actual arrival on the island, the bit with the, er, aliens – but the ride is great value. It’s a bit surprising that this was the very first Fourth Doctor / Leela novel to be published – the Virgin Missing Adventures never went to this time period – and a bit sad that none of the subsequent five is as good.

Leela could easily have ended up as a one-joke character (cf the Sixth Doctor’s penguin-shaped companion, Frobisher; or indeed *snark* Jo Grant). That she didn’t in the TV series is testimony not only to the writers but also to Louise Jameson, who overcame Tom Baker’s hostility to give a memorable performance. But I suspect that sustaining her in print over the length of a new BBC novel is rather a tough task, which may explain why it has been attempted a) rarely and b) mainly by Chris Boucher, her creator. Still, when it works – as with Eye of Heaven, Psi-Ence Fiction and to an extent Corpse Marker – it works well.

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March Books 25) Doctor Who and the Daleks

25) Doctor Who and the Daleks, by David Whitaker

There was a time when this was literally the only Doctor Who book in existence (under its excellent original 1964 title of Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks); indeed it was the only commercially available representation of any Doctor Who story, in those days long before video-recorders (let alone DVDs). So we have Whitaker taking much greater liberty with Terry Nation’s TV script than almost any other novelisation (John Lucarotti’s treatment of The Massacre differs even more from the story as broadcast, but he was reverting back to his own original script).

And the result is quite possibly the best of the novelisations, judged as a novel. The opening of the story is comprehensively rewritten, Ian being an unemployed research scientist who accidentally encounters Barbara, who has been tutoring the mysterious Susan, and gets involved with the Doctor and his Tardis. So much time is invested – wisely – in setting the scene that we are a third of the way through the book before we reach the equivalent point to the end of the TV story’s first episode (out of seven).

The biggest novelty, for those of us who have read almost any of the subsequent hundreds of Who books, is that the whole story is told in the first person, from Ian’s point of view. (It’s not unknown in later Who literature, but it is very unusual.) This does require a certain amount of narrative juggling, but Whitaker gets away with it better than I remembered from when I first read this, three decades ago.

Today’s generation of fans will squee at the pronounced sexual tension in the Ian/Barbara relationship here – the TV story has Barbara close to flirting with Ganatus, one of the Thals, but he barely gets to look at her on the printed page. Poor Susan rather fades into the background as well after she has done her mercy run to the forest. The characterisation of the Doctor is much more harsh and edgy than Hartnell’s depiction; since Whitaker was the story editor, perhaps this was what he had originally in mind? (A possibility supported by the surviving first cut of the first ever episode.)

And the Daleks themselves are pretty memorable here, though Whitaker seems a bit confused about their size – three feet high at one point, four foot six at another, though the illustrations are of our “normal” sized pepperpots. However, this confusion is compensated for by the glorious description of the mutants within the metal casings, and their glass-enclosed leader. The TV show has never managed such memorable presentations of the creatures inside, though it has occasionally tried. (The versions encountered by the Ninth Doctor come closest.)

Anyway, this is an excellent read, well worth hunting down.

The Game, Dreamtime, Catch-1782

The Game was a rather nice parable of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa ending a war; not a lot more to say about the plot than that. Several interesting things about the form rather than the content, though. First off, the six-part framework is much more effective than BF’s usual four parts, and imposes a certain discipline on the storytelling. Second, the setting is very close in concept to my day job, but this is a broad brush portrayal, not a didactic exercise, so I forgive the blurring of details. Third, and most important, we have the return of William Russell to Doctor Who after forty years, as interplanetary negotiator Lord Darzil Carlisle – a memorably flawed character, whose relationship with both Nyssa and the Doctor turns out to be the real story here.

Dreamtime is the first trip in the Tardis for the Seventh Doctor’s new companion Hex: some splendid audio-scapes conveying the double weirdness of the landscape – Uluru is bizarre enough in the first place, but to find it on an atmospheric asteroid is extra value. I’m not sure if the plot really made a lot of sense but I enjoyed the ride.

In Catch-1782, the Sixth Doctor takes Mel to visit her scientist uncle, and then has to rescue her from a timewarp in which she risks being married off to one of her own ancestors. The plot is not very original, but Bonnie Langford is terrific as Mel in this – clearly Big Finish allowed her to find depths in the character that were impossible on TV.

In summary, three unexceptional but decent plays.

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Gallifrey Season 3

So, the last of the Gallifrey audios with Louise Jameson as Leela, Lalla Ward as Romana, John Leeson as K9 and Mary Tamm as Romana’s evil twin.

The first two of these five, Fractures and Warfare finish off the Pandora arc, with Romana and Leela successfully fighting back from the catacombs of Gallifrey. The final three, Appropriation, Mindbomb and Panacea all deal with the palace politics of deciding who runs the place once the internal conflict is over, and ends on an undecided note, Leela and Romana preparing to leave a devastated planet. The first two really do follow on very closely from season 2, so much so that I think the entire sequence of fifteen plays probably works better as five blocks of three rather than three blocks of five. Alan Barnes, as so often, excels in the final play which is the best of a generally decent run.

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Finding Kholby

I’ve been musing on the geography of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Most of the places marked in the books are well known, and even described fairly accurately, but India appears to be an exception.

The basis of the book is a bet that the central character, Phileas Fogg, can in fact go around the world in 80 days, “now that the section between Rothal and Allahabad, on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, has been opened”/“depuis que la section entre Rothal et Allahabad a été ouverte sur le « Great-Indian peninsular railway »” (Chapter 3 – NB that the French original spells the name of the railway correctly, unlike the English translation). It turns out that this information (and therefore the basis for the bet, but that’s a different matter) is not true: the railway ends fifteen miles after Rothal at the hamlet of Kholby, as Fogg and his companions discover in Chapter 11, and the party continues on to Allahabad by elephant.

Rothal and Kholby appear to be unknown to today’s geographers. We do have some clues: “The general route of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway is as follows: Leaving Bombay, it passes through Salcette, crossing to the continent opposite Tannah, goes over the chain of the Western Ghauts, runs thence north-east as far as Burhampoor, skirts the nearly independent territory of Bundelcund, ascends to Allahabad, turns thence eastwardly, meeting the Ganges at Benares, then departs from the river a little, and, descending south-eastward by Burdivan and the French town of Chandernagor, has its terminus at Calcutta.”/“Voici, en somme, le tracé à grands points du « Great Indian peninsular railway ». En quittant l’île de Bombay, il traverse Salcette, saute sur le continent en face de Tannah, franchit la chaîne des Ghâtes-Occidentales, court au nord-est jusqu’à Burhampour, sillonne le territoire à peu près indépendant du Bundelkund, s’élève jusqu’à Allahabad, s’infléchit vers l’est, rencontre le Gange à Bénarès, s’en écarte légèrement, et, redescendant au sud-est par Burdivan et la ville française de Chandernagor, il fait tête de ligne à Calcutta.”

This itinerary isn’t difficult to trace today, apart from the bit traversed by elephant where the railway runs out because it does not cross the Vindhia Mountains. For the next two chapters the place names don’t appear to correspond to anything I can find: we have “the village of Kallenger, on the Cani, one of the branches of the Ganges…. Allahabad was now only twelve miles to the north-east.”/“la bourgade de Kallenger, située sur le Cani, un des sous-affluents du Gange… La station d’Allahabad n’était pas à douze milles dans le nord-est.” But I can’t even find the Cani, let alone the village of Kallenger (there is a Ken River, but it is just a bit too far to the west). Fogg rescues Aouda, the young widow of one of the rajahs of Bundelcund, from death by suttee, at the “pagoda of Pillaji”, which again seems to be fictional.

Of course, Verne is writing a work of fiction, and on top of that the main purpose of this passage is to set up India as a contrast with America later in the book rather than to be a geography textbook. I can’t shed any further light on Kallenger or the pagoda of Pillaji (though I do find Pillaji as a Marathan leader, but again this is too far to the west). However I think I have identified Verne’s source for Kholby: I reckon it is his misreading of the town of Kothi, which is 80 miles as the crow flies (rather than 50 miles as in the text) from Allahabad, and twelve miles (rather than fifteen) north of the railway station at Satna (which therefore may be the basis of Rothal, though how you get from the one to the other orthographically I don’t know). It’s far from perfect; Kothi isn’t actually on the railway line, which passes some way to the east of it. But I imagine that Verne was not striving for total accuracy. (Bill Butcher has more on this.)

Map of the area from 1893:

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March Books 24) Fables [1]: Legends in Exile

24) Fables [1]: Legends in Exile, by Bill Willingham et al.

An impulse purchase in our local comics shop last weekend. But actually rather a neat story of characters from fairy tales living in contemporary Manhattan: Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf investigate the apparent murder of Rose Red, but it is a dark, very adult tale. New York is a bit fictional anyway, so to combine it with the exiles from the Land of Fable seems almost obvious once it has been done. I’ll be looking out for the rest of this series.

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March Books 23) Trillion Year Spree

23) Trillion Year Spree, by Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove

This has been looking at me from my bookshelves for the last couple of years, and I’ve finally got around to reading it. I’m a bit irritated that the cover of my paperback House of Stratus edition seems to have deteriorated rather badly in the meantime; has anyone else had this problem? Or have I just been lugging it around on my foreign trips too much?

It is a big big book about the history of science fiction from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to 1986 (with a very brief postscript for the 2001 edition). I was surprised how much of the argument of the book was already familiar to me. I guess I must have internalised it from poring over the writings of John Clute. Still, Aldiss makes some very interesting points to fill out the basic lines about Shelley, Gernsback and what happened in between.

One really striking omission is the influence of broadcast sf – cinema does get a look in, as an essential part of the cultural background as Aldiss and Wingrove see it, but Star Trek and Doctor Who are barely mentioned, and Douglas Adams’ name comes up precisely twice – first as making lots of money from Robert Sheckley’s ideas, second as just making lots of money. (Indeed, the whole second last chapter is basically about how Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Hubbard and van Vogt were getting money for old rope in the most recent period, though there are kinder words for Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl.)

I’m sure there are gaps but I’m bad at spotting them; Aldiss berates himself in his afterword for completely missing Terry Pratchett in his survey of more recent sf, and there will of course be others. It’s also interesting that I simply haven’t heard of several of the writers described as up-and-coming in the 1970s and 1980s. More for my reading list, I guess. Anyway, it’s a very interesting read.

On a totally irrelevant note: I have copied all my various write-ups of books and Big Finish CDs to my LibraryThing catalogue, and this will be the thousandth review I have posted there. I’m still way behind the likes of , but it’s a milestone of sorts.

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Bits and pieces

Best Doctor Who post evar. I had to read it twice before I completely got it, and it obviously sailed over the heads of a lot of the commenters.

For the three of you who care and haven’t seen it: Match It for Pratchett. (Concept from , catchy slogan from .)

‘s sartorial dilemma.

has some interesting reflections on the latest LiveJournal kerfuffle. Likewise . (Do you two know each other, by the way?)

If any of you know or are interested in Jonathan Fryer, likely to be Lib Dem MEP for London from summer of next year, I’ve syndicated his blog to .

My boss on Samantha Power on Sergio Vieira de Mello (and even if you don’t recognise either of those names or know who I work for I think you’ll find it an interesting read).

Speaking of Samantha Power, I feel very sympathetic to her recent travails; I once had a narrow escape myself in that regard (fortunately the person who I described as “infuriating friends, colleagues and allies” thought it was funny rather than offensive).

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March Books 22) Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child

22) Doctor Who and An Unearthly Child, by Terrance Dicks

Why yes, I am planning to (re-)read all the Doctor Who novelisations. They are mostly such a quick read that they just about fill a leg of my daily commute.

This is the novel version of the very first Doctor Who story, as broadcast in 1963. But the novel was not published until shortly before the story was shown again as part of the 1981 repeat season of the Five Faces of Doctor Who, so it ties much more into the continuity of the publication of dozens of Target novelisations of Who stories by the early 80s than into the TV programme’s internal chronology starting on 23 November 1963. In fact, we already had a hard-copy version of the origins of Who in the form of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks, so Dicks was in the peculiar position of writing the story over again, of making the weirdness and newness of the 1963 story both accessible and intriguing to the 1981 fan.

Anyway, he largely succeeds. We have a bit more background to fill out both the first quarter of the book, set in a contemporary London school, and the rest, set in a stone age environment; indeed, Dicks fills out both settings perfectly satisfactorily. If you are looking for a good entry point to the Doctor Who novelisations, this is entirely characteristic and appropriate. (Fans of Barbara will rightly assert that their heroine comes over rather girly, but this is a common Terrance Dicks problem with assertive female characters.)

Of course, the story’s main importance is as a gateway for things to come, and Dicks does really well in his last couple of paragraphs, when the travellers have once again landed on an unfamiliar planet:

The Doctor was about to meet the creatures who were destined to become his greatest enemies.

Out there on Skaro, the Daleks were waiting for him.

That, if nothing else, would make you want to read the next books in the sequence.

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