April Books 35-40) Six Jamie / Zoe novelisations

I’d already read probably the best Jamie / Zoe novel, Doctor Who – The Invasion, by Ian Marter, and also the worst, Doctor Who and the Dominators, also oddly enough by Ian Marter. Four of the other six are fairly standard efforts by Terrance Dicks, but the other two present points of interest.

35) Doctor Who – The Wheel in Space

A standard Dicks novelisation, compressing a six part script into Target format without adding much of interest. Happily, the best line of the original remains intact.

36) Doctor Who – The Mind Robber, by Peter Ling

This is much more fun. The original TV version was one of the most surreal stories ever; the novel takes some liberties with the script, but basically improves it further to make it one of the better Second Doctor novels. Even the Karkus somehow makes better sense here. One to look out for.

37) Doctor Who and the Krotons, by Terrance Dicks

Again, an average Dicks treatment of a less-than-average Robert Holmes story.

38) Doctor Who – The Seeds of Death, by Terrance Dicks

For once I felt Dicks was trying a bit harder here, with a certain amount of characterisation and back-story for the (admittedly somewhat implausible) future Earth society and the hierarchy in charge of the T-Mat. The Doctor gets really trigger-happy with his wholesale slaughter of Ice Warriors at the end. One visual that I am happy to lose is the Ice Warrior leader Slaar, who reminds me too much of Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Space Balls.

39) Doctor Who – The Space Pirates, by Terrance Dicks

The good thing about the novelisation is that we are spared the excruciatingly awful accents of the original version (Milo Clancy is almost certainly Irish here). The bad thing is that we see even more clearly just how implausible the plot actually is. None the less, I felt Dicks was trying a little harder here, and he has made a pretty awful story slightly less awful.

40) Doctor Who and the War Games, by Malcolm Hulke

I seem to be against received fannish wisdom in finding this rather good, if taken on its own merits. The original story is one of the great Who stories; the novelisation, constrained to less than fifteen pages for each of the ten episodes, is not quite of the same quality, but none the less tells a good story well, with decent foreshadowing of the Doctor’s fate and sensible meditations on the nature of war. This is the first Hulke novelisation I have read in this run, and sadly was the last he wrote before his death, so I am looking forward to the others.

So, that’s it for the Second Doctor novelisations. I finished up my read-through of the First Doctor novels by regretting that almost nobody manages to capture Hartnell’s performance on the printed page. Troughton (who perhaps put less of his own personality into the part than any other Doctor before Davison) is easier to pin down, the visual aspects of his performance more easily described. Of the other regulars, I felt that Victoria gains most, and Zoe loses most, on the printed page. Perhaps it is easier to inject some gravitas into the rather two-dimensional Victoria than to convey how stunningly cute Wendy Padbury is as Zoe.

The best of the Second Doctor novelisations are John Peel’s Doctor Who – The Power of the Daleks, Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who and the Web of Fear, Peter Ling’s Doctor Who – The Mind Robber and Ian Marter’s Doctor Who – The Invasion, with honourable mentions to Doctor Who – The Evil of the Daleks, the other three early Season 5 books, and Doctor Who and the War Games. None is quite as good as the best of the First Doctor novelisations, though.

Since I am reading these on my commute and am taking a long weekend chez in France, it’ll be a while before I do the next lot.

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Half a dozen classic Who stories

Just because I’m reading the novels doesn’t mean I am neglecting my duties to the original classic television series (though I imagine I will finish the novels first). But I realise I’ve fallen behind a bit in recording my reactions to them since the start of last month.

The Brain of Morbius is awfully good, considering. OK, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit because of the unlikelihood of Solon setting up his lab on precisely the same planet as the Sisterhood of Karn, and there’s a wee bit of time-wasting running around in the second half of the story. But basically this is Hinchcliffe/Holmes Who at its peak, witty, gruesome (but not too gruesome), and also rooted in continuity without being wedded to it. I loved it.

I was surprised that I did not really enjoy The Pirate Planet very much on watching it again (for the first time since 1978). Not a lot of it makes sense, and it isn’t really funny enough to compensate. Mary Tamm rather glows as Romana, and that is surprisingly the best thing I can find to say about it.

I was surprised that I did enjoy Warrior’s Gate. A somewhat surreal plot line, with reflections on colonialism, empire and slavery, and also Romana’s extended farewell to the Tardis (for once, decently signalled in advance, more perhaps than for any companion since Victoria). Even Adric, for once, seemed to fit in reasonably well. Definitely worth watching again.

I’m afraid Arc of Infinity on the whole left me cold; Gallifrey has become just a really stupid place, where they put Colin Baker, of all people, in charge of security. The moments of Omega’s return at the end would have been quite effective if it hadn’t been for the nonsense of the previous three episodes.

Given the current return of the Sontarans to our screens, I thought I should revisit The Two Doctors, which didn’t impress me much at the time and which fandom has since excoriated. Actually, I liked it more than I expected. If you’ve only seen Troughton in The Three Doctors, The Krotons and The Five Doctors (as was the case for me first time round) it doesn’t make a lot of sense; but the character here is rather more consonant with the actual Doctor of the later Troughton era – think especially of The Seeds of Death where he blows the hell out of every Ice Warrior he meets. Colin Baker seems unusually at ease with himself as well, and Nicola Bryant’s skimpy costume makes up for Peri’s rather whiny characterisation. Even Fraser Hines manages to invest Jamie with a certain maturity. OK, the story rather runs out of steam in the last of the (double-length) episodes, but Robert Shearman makes a good argument in About Time VI as to why this is happening. This is probably the Sontarans’ least impressive outing.

Time and the Rani is, unfortunately, just dire. It’s not the fault of the actors – McCoy does rather well in his first outing, and the others do their best with what they are given. It’s a combination of the script, which is pretty run-of-the-mill, and the incidental music, which is just simply awful – I think the worst I can remember. (It’s ironic that the music was the one aspect of NuWho that McCoy didn’t like.) The wriring was obviously on the wall, and as ever with this period of Doctor Who I find myself marvelling that it lasted until 1989.

So, in summary, The Brain of Morbius and Warrior’s Gate are real classics, and The Two Doctors held up better than I had expected; skip the rest.

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Dublin Review of Books

Jeff Dudgeon alerts me to the Dublin Review of Books, “a free quarterly online journal whose main object is the publication of clear and thoughtful analysis based on recently published books”. Various articles to browse through at my leisure, many from the perspective, more visible in intellectual discourse than in election results, of the Irish Left. I particularly enjoyed two pieces from the current issue:

Tony Brown on Irish Euroscepticism. I know Tony as a very nice guy involved with the Institute of European Affairs in Dublin, where I have spoken a couple of times. Here he lets his passion out, exposing the mendacity of the anti-EU cause in Ireland. I recommend it especially to British friends to see how the issue plays out in the neighbouring jurisdiction. However, it should also be noted that the anti-EU forces have lost every time in Ireland, if sometimes only on the second round. (Also I notice that the article, despite being in the Dublin Review of Books, doesn’t actually cite any, er, books. But it’s still very much worth reading.)

Brendan O’Leary on Paul Bew’s Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006. Again, an author I know on a subject I know; I first met Bew at the departmental parties our family would host, long before he got my father’s old job in Belfast let alone his recent peerage, and O’Leary has greatly flattered me in print. O’Leary’s article here attempts to forensically dissect Bew’s new blockbuster on the recent history of Ireland, but ends up making me want to buy and read the book, to see what I think of it myself. O’Leary feels that Bew attaches too much strength to the importance of indigenous factors and not enough to external (ie British) influence on events: I’m not sure all of his points are totally convincing, but he makes them very entertainingly. (A minor irritation is that you have to download O’Leary’s footnotes in a standalone Word document; in this day and age, that is simply unprofessional.)

Anyway, a site to keep watching. Lots more that I enjoyed browsing through, but as I said, these were the two articles that particularly grabbed me.

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April Books 33-34) Two biographies of Tolkien

33) J. R. R. Tolkien: a biography, by Humphrey Carpenter

My bookblogging has been in part inspired by my father, who logged every book he read from his late teens until his death in 1990 in a series of small notebooks. From the mid-60s he got into the habit of putting most of his comments, if he had any, on index cards inside the actual books, and only rarely jotting down his thoughts in more permanent form. In the case of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, which he read in January 1980 during the year we lived in the Netherlands, he wrote this:

I read this primarily because the children are currently so interested in Tolkien, & William had given Nicholas this book as an Xmas present. But I found it an unusually interesting & perceptive biography. I’ll note more or less at random some of the points that struck me: –
    1./ The account of the relationship between Tolkien & his wife. Begins romantically, in their waiting 3 years for each other. Yet she wasn’t really suited to be a don’s wife. She disliked his friendship w CS Lewis, & he evidently told her to lump it. She was happy only at the v. end, when they lived in Bournemouth. Yet through it all he was fond of her – & presumably she of him, tho’ the author doesn’t offer evidence on this.
    2./ What T’s Catholicism meant to him. One wdn’t have guessed this from his books. But it comes through here. Author reasonably suggests that it was reinforced by the sacrifices T’s mother made for the Faith.
    3./ Security of tenure for academics can pay off in unexpected ways. T got an Oxford chair at age of 32, on strength of promising work. He completed v. little more of an academic nature, & must have been the despair of editors & publishers. Yet he was working, at something much more original than he cd have done if his livelihood had depended on production. The outcome was what many people consider a masterpiece – The Lord of the Rings.
    4./ The tenacity with which he kept to the central purpose of his life – the construction of an entire mythology. The author implies that this had formed in his mind as early as about 1917, when he was 25. He was still at it when he died, aged 81. It didn’t take quite the form he envisaged, for The Lord of the Rings was an offshoot, & the Silmarillion, which he started first, was still uncompleted when he died. But the area of concern remained remarkably steady through his life. He was 62 when the first part of The Lord of the Rings was published, so he waited a long time for achievement, but it came in the end.
    This pattern, of a man finding a theme early in life, & then spending a lifetime playing it out, is a common one. I think of de Gaulle, Lenin, Marx, Darwin.

I don’t know what happened to the copy bought me 28 years ago – most likely still in our mother’s house (probably, indeed, in my brother’s room!) – but I decided to get myself a replacement on a birthday bookshop browse yesterday. All the things my father said about it are still true; although I have got a lot more explanation of Tolkien’s thought from Shippey and Garth, this must surely still be the best single source for the general details of his life – born in South Africa, brought up in Birmingham as a bright but impoverished middle-class orphan, invalided out of the first world war while his friends were killed, early promise not really realised in an obscure corner of academe, fame and fortune at the end of the life when he was almost too old to enjoy it. It was a good read that Christmas in 1979, and it is a good read now.

34) J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth, by Daniel Grotta

While I was at it I bought this Tolkien biography at the same bookshop in order to do a compare and contrast. It is two-thirds the length of Carpenter’s book, and one third the quality. Grotta admits rather grumpily (indeed, perhaps even peevishly!) that he was not given much access by the Tolkien family, but is gracious enough to recommend that the interested reader should get Carpenter’s book as well – I doubt if Carpenter would have or indeed should have returned the compliment! For the non-British reader he offers perhaps a bit more external perspective on what England was like in the early twentieth century, and he has more of the detail on the Ace vs Ballantyne affair, but he makes several annoying errors of detail which make it difficult to really trust the rest of his findings. Also the book is irritatingly repetitive in places. I would hesitate even to recommend it for the completist.

Nebula Awards

For those who haven’t seen but care (and if you are in that category, you should really be reading which is where I got this from):

Best Novel: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (born 1963; first Nebula or Hugo)
Best Novella: “Fountain of Age”, by Nancy Kress (born 1948; fourth Nebula, also has a Hugo)
Best Novelette: “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, by Ted Chiang (born 1967; fourth Nebula, also has a Hugo)
Best Short Story: “Always”, by Karen Joy Fowler (born 1950; second Nebula)

I note that 1) Once again, at least one of the Nebulas has gone to a first-time winner; there has never been a year without at least one first-time Nebula winner; 2) two out of four went to women; the Nebulas are more gender-balanced than the Hugos; and 3) two out of four were born between 1942 and 1951, whereas the average number of Nebulas won in previous years by authors aged between 57 and 66 is almost exactly 1, further evidence for my assertion that authors of that cohort win twice as many awards.

The winning novel is the only one of the nominees I had read (or indeed intend to read), and I enjoyed it. “Fountain of Age” is on my reading list for the Hugos; I’ve already read “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, and wouldn’t be surprised if Chiang pulls off the double again, though I have not yet read any of the other Hugo nominees in that category.

Other Nebula/SFWA stuff:

Nebula for Best Screenplay: Pan’s Labyrinth
Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling
Damon Knight Grand Master for 2008: Michael Moorcock
SFWA Service Award: Melisa Michaels and Graham P. Collins
Author Emeritus: Ardath Mayhar (who I hadn’t heard of)
SFWA President: Russell Davis (whew!)
SFWA VP: Elizabeth Moon
SFWA Secretary: Mary Robinette Kowal
SFWA Treasurer: Amy Casil
SFWA Eastern Regional: Bud Sparhawk
SFWA Overseas Regional Director: Ian Whates

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April Books 32) The Cornelius Quartet

32) The Cornelius Quartet: The Final Programme , A Cure for Cancer, The English Assassin, The Condition of Muzak, by Michael Moorcock

Another classic of speculative fiction, which I have now read: the complex tales of Jerry Cornelius, his family, his allies and his enemies. It’s difficult to call it a novel, or a collection of novels; the first book perhaps comes closest to having a conventional plot, but the second and third books in particular are rather free of the contraints of linearity. You have to really let the word pictures wash over you without expecting the narrative to behave as we are used to plots behaving. There’s a consistent sort of post-Empire awareness behind the scenes, which sometimes bubbles to the top: in one passage in the fourth book, various English groups are presented as if native tribes in some far-off colony. Often such experiments seem just boring and self-indulgent, but this kept my interest.

Given the references to popular culture throughout the series of books, it’s not surprising to find Doctor Who making an appearance. What is a bit surprising is the company the Doctor is keeping; he appears as one of a long list of characters in a masque, “all the old familiar characters of the mummer’s play, of mime and pantomime, of folklore and traditional tale”, a long list which starts with Widow Twankey, Polchinelle, Abanazar, The Demon King, and Mother Goose, and continues to include (in the crucial four lines) “The May Queen, Humpty Dumpty, Old King Cole, Sawney Bean, Springheeled Jack, Charlie Peace, Queen Elizabeth, Mr Pickwick, Charley’s Aunt, Jack Sheppard, Romeo and Juliet, Doctor Who, Oberon, The Grand Cham, a Dalek, Old Moore, Falstaff, Little Red Riding Hood, Beowulf…”

It is interesting that the only twentieth-century characters in the whole list, covering more than half a page of text (assuming, as seems reasonable, that Queen Elizabeth is not the present one), are Doctor Who and the Dalek. (I had to look up a number of the others. Sawney Bean, Charlie Peace and Jack Sheppard were all notorious criminals of past centuries. The Grand Cham is the title of a book published in 1922, but he was a folkloric figure for centuries before that, and I find a poem called “The Grand Cham and the Honey-Bee” in Bentley’s Miscellany for 1837.) He pops up again a few pages later, when Mr Smiles, who has come dressed as the Green Knight, is explaining his choice of costume:

‘I’d considered coming as Frankenstein.’ Mr Smiles brightened behind his black beard which he had, unsuccessfully, also tried to dye green, ‘but I gathered it wasn’t suitable. Too modern or something. Or too general? And yet Doctor Who is here. Is everyone supposed to be part of British folklore tonight? Frankenstein, I should have thought…’

Frankenstein may have been a novel in English by a British writer, but I’d have thought most people whould disagree with Mr Smiles about the story’s place as a specifically British tale – the story is after all set mainly in Germany and Switzerland, though with odd bits around our archipelago. Doctor Who is certainly more British. (Mr Smiles is talking to another character dressed as Polchinelle, who reflects that although the character may originally have been Italian, he has been adopted by British culture as Punch.)

The book was published in 1977, so the Doctor can be understood as any of the first four Doctors (perhaps indeed all four; perhaps most likely Tom Baker’s particularly pantomimic persona). Moorcock presents Doctor Who (and the Dalek) in a completely different context from his frequent pop-culture references to Hawkwind, the Beatles, Pink Floyd etc; as an element of British historical lore, partly quaint and partly sinister. I don’t know of any other such references to Doctor Who in classic sf; but I will be looking out for them.

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Birthday post

I’ve celebrated my birthday on livejournal in past years by googling up relevant links to my date of birth. This year, WikiPedia has become so dominant that I can assemble an impressive bunch of dates just from that source alone. (It also of course provides a handy index for just how famous the individuals in question are, given the number of links involved).

Born the same day as me:

Glen Jacobs, aka Kane, wrestler and actor. There are Wikipedia articles about him in 20 languages. I am totally baffled by this.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, actress and musician who has inspired articles in the Wikipedias of a mere eight languages.
Rainer Salzgeber, Austrian skier (three languages)
Ariel Sorín, Argentinian chess grand master (three languages)
Florbela Oliveira, Portuguese actress (two languages)
Pavel Eduardovich Lion/Павел Эдуардович Лион, better known as Psoy Galaktionovich Korolenko/Псой Галактионович Короленко, also known as

 , Russian musician and Slavic scholar (two languages)
Trevyn McDowell, South African/British actress
Tim Moore, member of the Michigan state legislature
Bruce Cruse, Australian cricketer
Andy Schmetzer and Walt Schmetzer, American twin soccer players
Mike Masters, another American soccer player
Monte Warden, an American country musician who features only in the German Wikipedia.
Ralph Kistner German footballer and now trainer at OSC Vellmar.
Stefan Ludwig, German politician, mayor of Königs Wusterhausen.
Klaus ‘Klausi’ Merk, German ice hockey champion goalkeeper
Susanne Brantl, German actor and singer
Alexander ‘Sascha’ Draeger, German actor and dubbing artist whose voice credits include Clark Kent from Lois and Clark, and Dipsy from the Teletubbies.
Eva Cobo, Spanish actress who figures only in French Wikipedia
Yves Cotten, Breton graphic novelist and artist
Leszek Kisiel, Polish economist
Bertrand le Guern, French/Polish businessman
Alf Kåre Tveit, Norwegian footballer
Oleh Volodymyrovych Salmin / Олег Володимирович Салмін , Ukrainian politician
Toomas Tõniste, Estonian sportsman and politician
呂孔維, whose name can apparently be written Lu Kongwei or Lu Kung Wei, Taiwanese comedian

Amy Biehl (d. 1993), anti-apartheid activist
Robbie Millar (d. 2005), Northern Irish restaurateur

and, fictionally
Grace Adler, as in Will and Grace.

Launched the day I was born

The Twenty-Fifth Hour, film starring Anthony Quinn (release date from French Wikipedia page)
The Leicester Riders, Britain’s oldest basketball club
La Fondation nationale Reine Fabiola pour la Santé Mentale, Belgian charitable foundation (now swallowed up by the King Baudouin Foundation)
Grajski biki/Tvrđava siledžija/Stronghold of Toughs, Yugoslav/Slovenian film
HMS Hermione
The MS Taras Shevchenko‘s Black Sea career
San Marco 2, Italy’s second satellite

Died the day I was born

Jean Alexandre Barré (born 1880), as in Guillain-Barré syndrome. Articles in five languages.
W.J.A. ‘Dave’ Davies (born 1890), rugby player
Roman Wilkosz (born 1895), Polish artist
Siegfried Charoux (born 1896), Austrian sculptor
Nicolae Cernescu (born 1904), Romanian chemist
(probably) Michael J. Estocin (born 1931), US Vietnam war naval pilot

See a gallery of some of these people and things here.

(See previous birthday posts for 2007, 2006, 2005, and an old collection of links on my website.)

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April Books 27-31) Five Jamie and Victoria novelisations

These five Who books are all from 1967-68 stories, but from different ends of the chronology of publication. The first of these was in fact the very last of the official novelisations produced by Target/Virgin, in 1993; the other four were among the first five Second Doctor books, published between 1974 and 1978 by Target. Having been underwhelmed by my last clutch of Who books reviewed, I’m happy to report that all of these are good stuff.

27) Doctor Who – The Evil of the Daleks, by John Peel

This was the last official Target/Virgin adaptatation (a few remaining stories were produced in book form by fans subsequently) and therefore also the last Second Doctor novelisation and the last in the impressive series of five Dalek novelisation by John Peel. I have to say that I am among that heretical minority who regard the original story here as of less than top quality: the plot is absurdly convoluted, requiring both the Doctor and the Daleks to behave out of character, and Victoria as a new companion is awfully wet. But having said that, Peel improves on the original in a number of ways, giving the characters more comprehensible motivations, and embedding the narrative in the Dalek continuity he has been developing. I still preferred his others, but this is a good effort.

28) Doctor Who and the Tomb of the Cybermen, by Gerry Davis

I have been unimpressed by Davis’ previous Cyberman books, which were nothing like as good as my fond memories of them. But in this case, writing up what is certainly the best Cyberman story, Davis rose to the occasion and produced what is probably the best Cyberman book. He even succeeds in injecting Victoria with some gravitas, making her both courageous and assertive in total contrast to her screen character (he makes her blonde as well for some reason). It is not bad at all.

29) Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen, by Terrance Dicks

This was the very first Second Doctor book, followed over the next few years by Doctor Who and the Cybermen, then Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors, Doctor Who and the Web of Fear and Doctor Who and the Tomb of the Cybermen. Dicks was still taking it seriously at this stage, and nicely fills out the four-part story into a good read. The interplay of motivations among the monks is very good, and Dicks was still in the habit of writing in tight third rather than TV viewer perpective. Victoria, alas, is very wet indeed, but there are a couple of amusing double entendres, eg “Thonmi woke up with a jerk” – hmm, yes….

30) Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors, by Brian Hayles

Hayles wrote up his own story here, and did a good job. It may be yet another base under siege, but the people on and off the base all have understandable motivations and reasons for doing what they do. In particular, one feels much more sympathetic to the novel’s version of the aggressive Leader Clent than to the original broadcast character. The Ice Warriors are suitably villainous, the Doctor’s techno-babble entirely convincing, and the computer itself ends up an interesting character.

31) Doctor Who and the Web of Fear, by Terrance Dicks

I had already read Ian Marter’s novelisation of The Enemy of the World and also Victor Pemberton’s of Fury From The Deep, so this is my last Jamie/Victoria novel. And it’s another good one, again from the time when Terrance Dicks was still taking it seriously. He wisely strips out a lot of the chasing up and down bits of the Underground, but actually puts in a couple of crucial scenes that weren’t in the original story – most importantly, the first meeting between the Doctor and the future Brigadier, but also the sinister initial encroachment of the Web on central London. It’s rare that I will say this, but Dicks has actually improved a good original story here.

So that’s it for the Jamie/Victoria combination. While Victoria, apart from in Doctor Who and the Tomb of the Cybermen, is the screamiest girl companion since Susan, the affectionate interactions between the Tardis crew are almost (but not quite) as entertaining on the page as on the screen.

All five of these books are medium good, and four of them are important as the perspective through which fans of my age first encountered the Second Doctor. The best of them is certainly Doctor Who and the Web of Fear, which wraps up one line of continuity (the Yeti and Travers) while setting up another (the Brigadier and UNIT). But all are worth adding to the serious Who fan’s library. (The same can’t be said for the other two novels of this run, alas.)

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Having very much enjoyed the first three volumes of Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias series (1, 2, 3), I now discover that if I want to buy the fourth and last volume I will have to pay roughly twice what I paid for the other three combined.

Is it so much better than the others? Or just rarer, due to some quirk of the production and distribution process?

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April Books 22-26) The Ben/Polly/Jamie novelisations

Five novelisations of Second Doctor stories, all originally broadcast in 1967. None of them specially good, and a couple which are pretty dire, but all very quick reading for my commute.

22) Doctor Who – The Highlanders, by Gerry Davis

The best Davis novel I’ve read so far, though this is not especially high praise. It’s one of Polly’s better stories, and of course introduces Jamie as a regular; a couple of odd changes of detail from the TV version, but this is basically a narrative that hangs together on its own merits. Unfortunately there is still something of a sense of the author writing down what appears on the screen.

23) Doctor Who – The Underwater Menace, by Nigel Robinson

This is very poor. It’s not quite as bad as Robinson’s novelisation of The Sensorites, and in the earlier chapters I thought it seemed quite promising. But the prose soon descends into his trademark clunkiness, and the story’s most famous line actually manages to come over even worse on the printed page than it does in the original.

24) Doctor Who and the Cybermen, by Gerry Davis

A relatively early novelisation here, but not an especially good one. Davis’ characterisation is poor (Jamie is thick; Polly is a girlie; the head of the Moonbase is from Yorkshire) and the science of the story still makes no sense. Davis’ style must have improved over the years – this and Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet are markedly inferior to Doctor Who – The Highlanders.

25) Doctor Who – The Macra Terror, by Ian Stuart Black

I enjoyed this more than I had expected to, chiefly because of Black’s characterisation of the Doctor, which seems to me to capture Troughton’s performance better than any of the novels I have read so far. We do, of course, miss out on the superb soundscape of the original (alas, the video is no longer available), and poor Polly ends up screaming a lot. But it’s a worthy attempt.

26) Doctor Who – The Faceless Ones, by Terrance Dicks

Another valiant effort here – Dicks actually makes a decent fist of a confusing and incoherent story, featuring the quiet removal of Ben and Polly, and also one of the greatest companions-who-never-was, Samantha Briggs. Dicks has Jamie somewhat intimidated by Samantha’s sexuality, which contrasts with what I remember from the original version. He also introduces the sonic screwdriver several stories early, and yet again finishes by promising that the next adventure will be better (though in fairness, each time he does this he is right). But in contrast with even some of Dicks’ own less inspiring efforts, it’s not bad.

In summary, your life will not be incomplete for lack of having read any of these! These are the five books featuring Ben, Polly and Jamie in the regular cast; it is remarkable how much more interesting Polly is as a character than the other two. Shame she didn’t stay longer.

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Another one bites the dust

The sole elected representative of the Newtownabbey Ratepayers Association, Billy Webb, has announced that he is joining the Alliance Party. Given that the press officer listed on the Association’s website, former councillor John Blair, has also (re)joined Alliance, I reckon that’s it for one of Northern Ireland’s smaller (and more harmless) political groups. Alliance has not been doing badly for new recruits recently.

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April Books 21) Understanding English Place-Names

21) Understanding English Place-Names, by (Sir) William Addison

Picked this somewhat randomly off the shelves this morning. It does exactly what it says on the tin, breaking England down into regions and looking at the place names as a whole and particular individual cases of interest. It brought home to me how little of England I know despite my five years in Cambridge. It is interesting that so few English place names are Celtic in origin, apart from the obvious parts of the west and a few pockets farther east; also surprising that the Normans did not leave a heavier footprint on toponymy. I remain puzzled by the way that the Danelaw failed to really translate into later political divisions, but the book assured me that the pattern of Norse settlement based on place names is very visible. Anyway, an absorbing, quick read.

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April Books 20) Doctor Who – The Power of the Daleks

20) Doctor Who – The Power of the Daleks, by John Peel

John Peel continues his run of excellent Who books with this, the first story of Patrick Troughton’s incarnation of Doctor Who. It is a favourite of mine anyway – I cannot understand why fannish opinion generally prefers the later Evil of the Daleks – but Peel, equipped with David Whitaker’s original scripts (retrieved, apparently, from his ex-wife’s attic) and benefiting from some editorial decision to give him 250 rather than 125 pages to tell the story, has done an excellent job.

On reflection, it’s also because this is a relatively unusual Dalek story, presenting them not as a rival galactic empire to us humans but as in some way a dark reflection of our own desires about ourselves. The only other televised story that comes close to doing that is Robert Shearman’s Ninth Doctor story.

Anyway, Peel turns a good TV story (as far as we can judge, since it is one of the lost ones) into a good novel. An encouraging start to my reading up on the Second Doctor.

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April Books 19) True History of the Kelly Gang

19) True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

This was recommended to me by someone about six months ago, I think after I was a bit unimpressed by the same author’s Oscar and Lucinda. It really grabbed me; I was only vaguely aware of the story of Ned Kelly, but Carey has given him and his country (the Australian state of Victoria in the 1870s) a resounding voice. The story is dramatic and moving; the underlying theme of the book is the injustice by which Kelly and his family, and their community, were shut out of having their voice heard, and had to submit to the lies and distortions of their more powerful enemies. Kelly becomes a robber and a murderer, but only after the authorities have made him so; he is motivated by love and loyalty for his family, and comes across as flawed but in his own way noble. I believe this won the Booker Prize? A decent choice if so.

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April Books 17-18) The Last First Doctor Novelisations

And so I reach the end of the first phase of this insane project, the last two novelisations featuring William Hartnell’s incarnation of the Doctor.

17) Doctor Who – The Smugglers, by Terrance Dicks

A fairly standard Dicks treatment of a competent Brian Hayles script. Perhaps because this is one of the stories whose visuals are completely lost, there is much less than usual of the feeling that the author is just writing down what he is watching on the screen. The best bits all survive recognisably – Ben’s disbelief that they have travelled in time, Polly’s gender confusion, Polly and the Doctor appealing to magical forces, the Doctor deciding to intervene. Worth the effort to hunt down.

18) Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet, by Gerry Davis

This was the first new First Doctor book published by Target, and is of course both the last First Doctor story and the first Cybermen story. Davis made a number of changes, mostly minor and annoying, to the script he co-wrote with Kit Pedler. Most crucially, the Doctor’s regeneration at the end takes place in a coffin-like cabinet rather than just on the floor of the Tardis; also the year of the action is shifted from 1986 to 2000. Bizarrely, considering that Pedler’s involvement was supposed to bring a bit more scientific credibility to the show, the number of basic mistakes is legion – the South Pole is about the least suitable place imaginable to put either a space tracking station or a deadly nuclear missile, the terms ‘nova’ and ‘supernova’ are flung about with wild abandon, and the whole foundation of the plot makes as much sense as Velikovsky. Plus Davis is compelled to do some retconning of the Telos/Mondas confusion which actually makes matters worse. I enjoyed the screen version much more; it was easier to go with the flow ignore the flaws is the story.

So, that’s it for the First Doctor novelisations. The best ones are David Whitaker’s original Doctor Who and the Daleks, Ian Marter’s Doctor Who – The Rescue and Donald Cotton’s Doctor Who – The Romans, with honorable mentions to the other four by those three authors, John Lucarotti’s Doctor Who – Marco Polo and the three Dalek novelisations by John Peel. None of them is quite the real thing though: Hartnell’s performance was so strongly visual that it is impossible to catch on the printed page. The only way to really get a flavour of early Who is to watch it.

On to the Troughton era now…

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April Books 16) The Great War: Breakthroughs

16) The Great War: Breakthroughs, by Harry Turtledove

I got this somewhat randomly several years back in preparation for the WorldCon panel I chaired with Turtledove as one of the participants. I didn’t manage to read it then, though; bounced off the first couple of chapters. I have now struggled through it as part of my ongoing programme of clearing my backlog of unread books.

The book is, it turns out, the third of a trilogy about an alternate history war ending in 1917, where the US and Germany are fighting a bitter trench combat against Britain/Canada, the Confederate States of America fifty years after their victory in the War of Secession, and France. All the action takes place on or near the North American continent, so the fact that I didn’t read it before our panel on the future of Europe is no great loss. The major one of the “Breakthroughs” of the title is the penetration of Confederate lines on the Kentucky/Tennessee front by the US army’s new battle machines (known as “barrels” rather than “tanks” in this world), under the command of septuagenarian George Armstrong Custer, as a result of which the Confederate front collapses, the US re-occupies Washington, annexes chunks of Canada and declares Quebec independent, and the war and the book both end.

Turtledove has about a dozen viewpoint characters, telling the story from the point of view of the military and civilians affected by the war. US president Teddy Roosevelt pops into the narrative now and then, and the defeated CSA president appears at the end, but on the whole this is the story of the little people. It is detailed and well worked out, but didn’t quite grab me as much as I was hoping. I very much enjoyed Turtledove’s Hugo-winning novella “Down in the Bottomlands”, and wonder if the discipline of the shorter form enables him to concentrate quality rather better than in a trilogy of 650-page books.

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April Books 13-15) Three more First Doctor novelisations

Three good ones this time, though whether they represent two or three broadcast stories is a matter of opinion!

13) Doctor Who – The Myth Makers, by Donald Cotton

Once again, Cotton produces a memorable Who novel through a first person narrative: this time he has the poet Homer telling the story of how he witnessed the Doctor and friends interfering with the outcome of the siege of Troy. Homer didn’t appear at all in the story as broadcast (though Cotton has him absorb the silent role of the Cyclops played by Tutte Lemkow); constricting the whole narrative to a single viewpoint character does create some difficulties in telling the story, but basically it is a really good story anyway, and while it’s not Cotton at the utter peak of his form, it is surely one of the top ten novelisations. Cotton has taken the opportunity to restore as chapter titles some of the punning episode titles scrapped by the production team (eg “Doctor in the Horse”).

14) Doctor Who – Mission to the Unknown, by John Peel

This brings together both the single-episode, Doctor-less story Mission to the Unknown, and the first half of the 12-part Daleks’ Master Plan, which IMHO is the peak of early Who. It’s a dramatic story, centering around the efforts of the Doctor and friends to prevent the evil Mavic Chen from turning over the Solar System to the Daleks. This first section includes much scene-setting on the Dalek base planet, Kembel, and on Mavic Chen’s earth; excursions to a couple more hostile planets en route; the tragic deaths of key characters; and ends with the Doctor tricking the Daleks into letting him regain control of the Tardis and escape with Steven and former enemy-turned-ally Sara Kingdom. It’s a glorious story and Peel does it justice.

15) Doctor Who – The Mutation of Time, by John Peel

The Daleks’ Master Plan is simply too long to constrain inside a single pair of covers (at least at Target length), so Peel wrote it up as two separate novels, though you would be well advised to read Doctor Who – Mission to the Unknown first. Here again we have a grand panorama of Stuff Going On: the Doctor’s compatriot, the Meddling Monk, reappears; Mavic Chen passes from hubris to nemesis; the Doctor must accept another death among his closest circle. Peel’s treatment of the second half of the story takes slightly more liberties with the version as broadcast, mostly for good reason: the breach of the Fourth Wall at the end of episode 7 is removed, we get a bit more information as to what happens to everyone else after the Doctor leaves, and we get a Steven/Sara spark that will gladden the hearts of Hartnell-era shippers (including the assertion that they spent months together in the Tardis). He does the complex narrative more than justice.

I’d recommend all three of these. Next for me, since I’ve already read the Dodo novelisations, is Doctor Who – The Smugglers.

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April Books 12) A History of Africa

12) A History of Africa, by J.D. Fage

Since I changed jobs at the start of last year I’ve been working with two African groups, the Polisario Front of Western Sahara and the government of Somaliland. Part of my motivation for getting this job was that I wanted to do more on Africa; I feel that if you’re working in international relations and not working on Africa you need to ask yourself why not. But I confess my overall knowledge was not very extensive, and while I’ve deepened my understanding of the Western Sahara and Somaliland situations in particular, I wanted some more general information.

 had picked up this book years ago somewhere, and so I worked through it over the last week.

I found it a pretty fascinating guide to the interlocking ebb and flow of kingdoms and empires across the continent up to the colonial period. The particular strength is in West Africa south of the Sahara, which I have been long fascinated by despite knowing very little about it, but he’s good on the rest as well. Two things I was particularly interested to read about: i) The first massive external colonialist intervention, based on greed and collapsing in mismanagement and ignominious withdrawal, seems to have been the Moroccan destruction of the Songhai empire based on the Niger river in 1591, which resulted in the impoverishment of the whole of West Africa. ii) The rape of southern central Africa (“Bantuland”, as Fage calls it) by slave traders at the start of the nineteenth century, and its subsequent easy penetration by European colonialists, was mainly due to the exploratory, trading and colonising efforts of Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Oman, who got so engaged with his successful African trade that he moved the seat of his Arabian sultanate to Zanzibar.

However, it’s probably not the best place to start for today’s reader; published in 1978, it therefore misses the crucial transitions in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and covers less than the first half (in many cases not even the first third) of most countries’ post-independence history. The unresolved Rhodesia and apartheid questions I think also make it more difficult for the author to assess the colonial and post-colonial eras in the round, and of course the Portuguese and Spanish had only just disengaged. Also, rather surprisingly, the Cold War is not mentioned at all. I’ve been doing a bit of digging and am interested to see John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the continent coming up in recommendations; has anyone out there read it?

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Poll analysis

Well, thanks to everyone who ticked boxes in yesterday’s poll. I found the results interesting.

First off, if you can read this, you probably also have Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew characters installed. Probably also Arabic, but I somehow screwed up the poll between Arabic and Armenian. I ought to have also tested for more exotic Cyrillic characters: the Macedonian/Serbian њ, the Altai ҥ, the Kazakh/Kyrgyz ң, the Siberian ӈ and the Sami ӊ. Next time.

Next in order are a clutch of South Asian scripts. I was surprised that both Thai and Tamil were a nose ahead of Devanāgarī, which is surely used by a lot more people than either of the former two. After Devanāgarī, Gurmukhī and Gujarātī are level pegging (as is, from a slightly different part of the world, the much less widely used Georgian), followed by Kannada and then Telugu (which is level with two scripts related to Arabic – Syriac and Thaana), and then Malayalam.

After that the four big East Asian scripts – the Japanese Hiragana and Katakana, and phonetic and standard Chinese – if you have one of these you probably have all four.

Next is Armenian, though I think this may be unfair – as mentioned above, I screwed up the coding. I would have thought that anyone who can see Georgian ნ can probably also see Armenian Ն. And then Korean Hangul, which I am frankly surprised to see ranking so low. The only other one that more than half of you could see was Tibetan.

Now we get into the exotica. I’m surprised to see Oriya just below the half-way mark. I don’t know much about it, but it seems to have a similar number of speakers to Kannada and Malayalam which scored much higher, and the script doesn’t appear to present any real peculiarities. Lao rounds out the easier South Asian scripts (with the curious exception, which I’ll come to in a moment, of Burmese).

Three of the next five are recently invented North American scripts. The Canadian Aboriginal syllabic script is surprisingly popular (not just with Canadians); it is followed by Cherokee. Then we leap back to Asia for Sinhala and Mongolian, but the next is the utterly artificial Deseret script of the Mormons. It is rather sad that this alphabet, in which apparently only four books were ever published, is visible to more of you than the N’Ko script used by millions in West Africa, or the Ge’ez/Ethipic script used by tens of millions in East Africa.

Then we get down into the exotic. I’m not surprised to see Khmer, famously difficult to learn, down so low; next is Runic, perhaps the easiest to code of the ancient scripts; then Bernard Shaw’s Shavian script. Next, on level pegging, a whole clutch of scripts: Burmese (which came rather late to the party) and the slightly superseded scripts of Limbu, Tifinagh and Osmanya, plus Linear B, Old Italic, Gothic, Ugaritic and the ancient Cypriot syllabary. Then another clutch of ancients – Old Persian, Phoenician, Kharoṣṭhī and cuneiform. In joint second last place are four Asian scripts – Hanunó’o, Tai Nüa, Buginese, Syloti Nagri – and ancient Coptic and Ogham. And finally five more Asian scripts, only visible to one person – Tagalog, Buhid, Tagbanwa, Balinese and Phagspa.

For the funny n’s, it’s not very surprising that everyone can see ñ, ń, ɲ, ɳ and ŋ. I am slightly surprised that not quite everyone could see the perfectly respectable Czech/Slovak letter ň and the Latvian ņ, and that equally many can see the pretty bogus ṅ, ṇ and ṉ (OK this last is used by two actual languages but one is spoken by only 4000 people and the other apparently by only 20). Likewise, just behind, the perfectly genuine Lakota ƞ is level pegging with the bogus ṋ. Almost 90% of you can see ǹ as well, even though I haven’t found a language that uses it.

It is a shame that the glorious n̈ (as in Spın̈al Tap) has not been more popular among typesetters. But I’m surprised that as many as a third of you could see ᶇ, n with a hook, and that a quarter of you could see ᵰ, n with a niddle tilde. It shows that people who work on fonts find it easier to grapple with the more bizarre and less used Latin-based letters than with real scripts used by millions of people.

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Becoming Belgian

We’ve spent the morning at the town hall, applying for Belgian citizenship. If you’ve lived here continuously for seven years (and we’ve been here for over nine) it’s pretty much automatic; you just need to get your birth certificate officially translated into the local official language. After handing those over, and then a lot of hanging round in the foyer, we were given a declaration to sign and told that the procureur would get back to us in a few months with instructions on getting new ID cards and passports.

I’ve always felt instinctively libertarian about nationalities. I already carry both UK and Irish passports, as all people from Northern Ireland are entitled to do under the Good Friday Agreement (ten years old yesterday). I occasionally wonder if my father’s birth in Malaysia, or his mother’s in the USA, might give me a shot at another citizenship or two. But the Belgian state has served us well over the last few years, especially with our family’s special needs, and it seems appropriate to deepen our relationship with it. We don’t have to give up our existing citizenships; the most serious obligation is that voting in Belgian elections will now be compulsory for us in all cases, rather than optional for local and European elections. But spending a few minutes in a ballot box once every couple of years is not exactly onerous.

There is, I must admit, a slight factor of ameliorating certain doomsday scenarios at the back of my mind. Neither of these is hugely likely, but to get a little more insurance against them is not a bad thing. The first case is, what if the UK leaves or gets kicked out of the EU? I already observe the frustration of my internationally-minded Norwegian and Swiss friends, wanting to pursue the same sort of career that I am in, but fundamentally hampered by the decisions of their countries to stay out. Sure, the EEA agreements are meant to take care of that sort of thing; but psychologically, it just isn’t the same. I don’t think a referendum on anything positive to do with Europe could pass right now in the UK, and until the situation is resolved (preferably by the British body politic catching itself on about Europe, rather than by leaving) we are on borrowed time. I have Irish citizenship anyway, but my wife does not.

The other doomsday scenario is the much discussed potential breakup of Belgium. I’m less inclined to feel that it will happen now than I was a few months back – we now have in place the government that won the elections last year, and it is to be hoped that the educative effect of working with his Francophone counterparts on day-to-day issues will mellow Yves Leterme’s approach. But in the context of the continuous hollowing-out of the Belgian state, citizenship rights are bound to go on the list at some point – there are plenty of examples of states with different internal citizenships around the world – and already our children’s care provision is dependent on our continued residence, not in Belgium, but in Flanders. Presumably if the crunch ever comes, existing Belgian citizens will be transitioned into the new arrangements fairly automatically, so it makes sense to consolidate our own position now.

Those two issues probably are not worth thinking about even to the extent of reading (let alone writing) two short paragraphs about them. There are lots of positive reasons to embrace Belgian-ness: the quiet and subversive liberal ethos; the excellent (if occasionally bureaucratic) public services; the diversity and quality of food and beer. But what really pushed us to take the step was young F. He was born a few months after we moved here, and knows that his mummy is English and his daddy is Irish; but he goes to our local village school, watches Flemish children’s television as readily as CBBC, and stunned us one day recently by coming home and telling us what he had been learning about “our six kings” (Leopold I, Leopold II, Albert I, Leopold III, Baudouin/Boudewijn and Albert II). He feels Belgian more than anything, and has no reason not to. Once the procureur has finished with our papers, the legal state of affairs will be brought into line with his perception.

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April Books 9-11) Three more Who novelisations

Three more books in my ongoing project, based on the last few stories of the 1964-65 season.

9) Doctor Who – The Space Museum, by Glyn Jones

The only one of these three to have been written up by the original author of the TV script. Unfortunately it’s not a success; writing decades after the first broadcast, Jones seems to have the same problem as the average viewer of the time in explaining what the story is actually about. His prose style doesn’t exactly sing either. He does inject an extra note of characterisation by having Ian quarrel with the Doctor all the time, but that too gets rather tedious. You can skip this in good conscience.

10) Doctor Who – The Chase, by John Peel

I was pleasantly surprised by this one, I think my first Peel novelisation (and certainly his first). The original story is one of the sillier efforts of early Who, including a comedy Dalek, not one but two very silly monsters (the Mire Beast and the Fungoids) and lots of utterly unconnected settings. Peel has used Terry Nation’s original scripts, plus some of his own historical research on the Mary Celeste, and come up with rather a good narrative, moored into later Who continuity (with references to future incarnations, the Draconians, etc). It ends up being rather fun.

11) Doctor Who – The Time Meddler, by Nigel Robinson

I have been underwhelmed by Robinson’s previous efforts, so I wasn’t especially looking forward to this. But in fact Dennis Spooner’s script is irrepressible, and for once Robinson rounds off a few corners without grinding the story down. Unexpectedly enjoyable.

I’ve already read Doctor Who – Galaxy Four so next are the intermingled narratives of the Myth Makers and the Daleks’ Master Plan.

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April Books 8) The Last Colony

8) The Last Colony, by John Scalzi

So, I’ve now finished all the novels on the Hugo shortlist, and can get started on the short fiction. Some of you will remember my exchanges with Scalzi on the first book in this series, Old Man’s War, which I took as an endorsement of kick-ass militarism and a mockery of the concept of conflict resolution. (refs: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) Scalzi explained to me then that his narrator was unaware of the true facts of the situation, and indeed the political message of The Last Colony is one I have much more sympathy with: humanity is dragged into an unwinnable war with the rest of the galaxy by the lies of its own political leadership, and our hero ends up as the one man who can resolve matters. So no complaints on that score.

However, I find Scalzi’s narrative style rather wearyingly unvarying; almost all the characters speak with identical voices. And the plot is both complex and reliant on fortunate accidents of timing. There are touches I liked – Charles Stross makes an appearance as a genetically engineered super-soldier, and I appreciated the subtle "Commodore Perry" riff at the end of the book – but this is going fourth on my ballot.

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Six months on

It is six months today since B moved out; we were told yesterday that she is now at the point where they will move her from her current accommodation, an hour’s drive from us near the Dutch border, to the much closer residential centre where she stayed for respite a couple of times during the summer. She seems in reasonable form at the moment (which of course is why they are now talking about moving her); she had had a very unhappy patch a few months ago, but has returned to a more even keel.

For the rest of us, it has been six months of adjustment to a new family situation, tough occasionally but generally an improvement: far fewer messes to clear up, no constant vigilance on the bathroom and kitchen, much greater freedom for us to go on family outings (most often, of course, to see B up in Limburg). Sounds like she will move in the middle of next month, if the everything is right, and then we will be able to see her more flexibly: maybe even bring her back home for the occasional heavily supervised curry. It’s all a process of adaptation…

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April Books 7) Rollback

7) Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer’s continuing presence on award shortlists is a mystery to me. His Hominids is possibly the worst book ever to win the Hugo (and yes, I have read They’d Rather Be RightThe Terminal Experiment, while not quite as dire, is certainly one of the least impressive Nebula winners.

So when I say that Rollback is the best book I have read by Sawyer, this should be understood as damning with faint praise. The prose somehow seems a bit less clunky: the tedious undergraduate-level discussions of philosophy and science are wisely constrained to the first half of the book; the two story lines – the central character’s unexpected rejuvenation, and the decoding of an alien message – come close to reinforcing each other.

Yet in the end, it doesn’t work. The biggest flaw is that while our central character is undergoing the dramatic changes of rejuvenation, and the consequent disruption of his life with his wife and family, we get very little sense of being inside his head. The second huge plot problem is that the alien messages come only once every 18.8 years (well, actually every 37.6 years): surely once contact has been established, one would set up continuous transmission in both directions, even knowing that there would be an 18.8 year lag?

Having said that, it’s a mediocre book rather than a bad one. Probably going last on my list (certainly below “No Award”); but I haven’t read Scalzi yet!

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April Books 6) Saturnalia

6) Saturnalia, by Lindsey Davis

Latest in this run of detective novels set during the reign of the emperor Vespasian. After a couple of less impressive efforts in recent years, Davis seems to be firmly back on form: this is an entertaining tale of family dynamics interacting mildly with high politics – Falco is called in to track an escaped German political prisoner, who coincidentally is the former lover of his brother-in-law. Oddly enough the actual murders are the least convincing part of the plot, but the rest is good fun.

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