Books acquired in January

Any Given Doomsday by Lori Handeland (2008)
Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1990)
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown (2001)
Doctor Who: The Ultimate Quiz Book by Stephen Cole 
Young people in post-conflict Northern Ireland: The Past Cannot Be Changed, But the Future Can Be Developed by Dirk Schubotz (2008)
Liberal Language: Speeches and Essays 1998-2003 by Graham Watson (2003) 
Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History and Society by Ioan Lewis (2008)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (1958) 
The Stand by Stephen King (1994)
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (2005)
Explorers on the Moon by Herge (2003)
Destination Moon by Herge (2003)
Haunter of the Dark by John Coulthart (2008)
Green Living for Dummies by Michael Grosvenor (2007)
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (2005)
32 Stories: The Complete Optic Nerve Mini-comics by Adrian Tomine (2006) 
How to Read Shakespeare by Nicholas Royle (2005)
Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw (1991)
Treasure Island (Scholastic Classics) by Robert Louis Stevenson (2004)
Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1992)
Crowe’s Requiem by Mike McCormack (1998)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (2004)
Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein (1978)
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1982)
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (1993)
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1995) 
The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson (1992)
Doctor Who: Foreign Devils by Andrew Cartmel (2002)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1992)
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (2005)
Essays on Time-based Linguistic Analysis by Charles-James N. Bailey (1996)
Doors Open by Ian Rankin (2008)
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2004)
There Will be Time by Poul Anderson (1973) 
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1997)
The Wandering Fire : The Fionavar Tapestry Book #2. by Guy Gavriel Kay (1987)
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough (2003)
Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher (1996)
The Odyssey by Homer (1992)
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (1990)
The Flood by Ian Rankin (2008)
The Iliad by Homer (1969)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1999)
"Doctor Who" Time Lord In Training by Justin Richards (2007)
The Spaceship Graveyard: Decide Your Destiny No. 1 ("Doctor Who") by Colin Brake (2007)
Quiz Book: Bk. 3 ("Doctor Who") by BBC (2007)
Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard (2004)
The Koran translated by Alan Jones (2001)
Shakespeare’s Wife by Germaine Greer (2008)
The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling (2008)
Reading the Oxford English Dictionary: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea (2008) 
The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin (2008)
Private Eye Annual 2008 by Ian Hislop (2008)
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker (2008)
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Wii and me

Well, it took me a while to get into it, but I have developed a healthy relationship with Wii Fit. Since the start of the year I have successfully established a routine of doing half an hour on it in the mornings – two yoga exercises, and one fron each of the other three categories – and am at the stage which I never came close to reaching during my flirtation with the gym, where I actually get out of bed looking forward to it, and have missed only one day a week so far. On top of that, I think it is actually doing me some good. I haven’t lost any weight – that will take some attention to my diet, I think – but I feel that it’s better distributed, and working better for me. (In any case my weight is only a shade above the desirable band.)

Meanwhile we seem to have acquired a number of games for the Wii. Young F kindly got us the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix game for Christmas, and has inevitably spent more time on it than we have (I can’t get the levitating to work). He is now campaigning for us to connect the Wii to the internet so that he can do Mario Karting with people round the world. No chance.

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January Books 19) The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, by Samuel Johnson

I’ve had this hanging around for ages, and eventually read it last week – it is very short, only 112 pages in my Penguin edition, and the original was only 93. Rasselas, as the title declares, is a prince of Abyssinia, who lives in a happy valley of the kingdom where he and his friends and family are preserved from all disturbing outside influences. With his friend, Imlac, his sister Nekayah, and her companion Pekuah, they tunnel out of the happy valley in search of adventure and take up residence in Cairo. They meet a deranged astronomer, and get him back in touch with reality; they get their adventure when Pekuah is kidnapped by Arabs; but she is rescued without too much drama. At the end of the book, they conclude that their dreams are unattainable and resolve to go back home.

I was interested that the action is exclusively set in Africa. There is mention of Europeans being in Cairo, and this making it a cosmopolitan city, but I don’t think we meet any of them. I was also interested that the astronomer character, whose delusion is that he is in sole control of the planets and the weather, is aware of the moons of Jupiter. We are clearly meant to read the African characters as disaffected young English men and women, and that is how they are portrayed (with a touch of Orientalism) in the illustrated editions on-line; I don’t think Johnson is really trying to say anything about Africa (though he had translated Jerónimo Lobo’s book about Abyssinia twenty-five years earlier).

It’s striking that this was written 250 years ago this month, the same year (1759) as Candide, which has a similar basic concept, but the timings I think are such that neither Johnson nor Voltaire can have much influenced the other. It seems to have been the last fiction (indeed, the only prose fiction) that Johnson published. It is somewhat pessimistic but very engaging.

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Back to Vortis, twice

My obsessive scheduling of Who books and audios sometimes throws up interesting moments of convergence. (Actually I think last time was more interesting than this time, but there you go.) For the last few weeks I’ve been reading Christopher Bulis’ Twilight of the Gods, and today I listened to Return to the Web Planet, billed as “from a story by Daniel O’Mahony” (and thereby, presumably, hangs a tale), both of which take us back to the planet Vortis, originally featured in the 1965 series The Web Planet and its novelisation Doctor Who and the Zarbi. Actually, the Doctor had already returned to Vortis twice, in the 1966 Doctor Who annual which featured the planet in two stories. None of the four returns to Vortis is particularly consistent, in continuity terms, with any of the others (including the two which appeared within the same set of covers forty years ago), so canon purists will just have to suck it up.

Twilight of the Gods (which I should also note is my 18th book of this month) seemed a bit clunky in places and seemed to take forever to read but is basically OK (which was essentially my assessment of Bulis’ First Doctor novels too). I liked the battle of the two ideological human factions over the resources of Vortis (and note that several other reviewers are too young to realise that it’s a reference to Cold War turf fights in Africa and Latin America). I think he also draws quite consciously from several elements of the 1996 Annual stories – the colonisers from offworld and movable planet Vortis in “The Lair of Zarbi Supremo”, and the huge intruders of “The Lost Ones” (though Bulis’ aliens are a lot bigger than the Atlanteans of 1966, and remind me a bit of some of Isaac Asimov’s creations). It is also, I now realise, the adventure on Voris referred to in The Dark Path. The characterisation of the Doctor, Jamie, and Victoria is pretty satisfactory, but the pace, as I said, is a bit slow.

Return to the Web Planet, which is a one-disc special released by Big Finish just over a year ago, takes Five and Nyssa back to Vortis to help the Menoptera scientist Acheron and his daughter Hedyla to deal with mysterious goings-on among the local Zarbi herds. This turns out to be due to a human intervention, whose details I found rather implausible even by Who standards, but the acting and soundscape – especially the soundscape! – help carry it off successfully.

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morning’s amusement

This is a graph plotting the Big Finish Doctor Who audios by internal chronology versus order of release. (Apart from the most recent 8th Doctor ones.) Sourced from the WikiPedia lists.

Fifth Doctor Sixth Doctor Seventh Doctor Eighth Doctor
BFA 91 Circular Time (i)
BFA 4 The Land of the Dead
BFA 10 Winter for the Adept
BFA 15 The Mutant Phase
BFA 26 Primeval
BFA 34 Spare Parts
BFA 44 Creatures of Beauty
BFA 66 The Game
BFA 91 Circular Time (ii)
BFA 93 Renaissance of the Daleks
VI Return to the Web Planet
BFA 107 The Haunting of Thomas Brewster
BFA 110 The Boy That Time Forgot
BFA 113 Time Reef & A Perfect World
BFA 91 Circular Time (iii)
BFA 47 Omega
BFA 1 The Sirens of Time
Ex1 Excelis Dawns
BFA 2 Phantasmagoria
BFA 20 Loups-Garoux
BFA 76 Singularity
BFA 8 Red Dawn
BFA 95 Exotron & Urban Myths
BFA 24 The Eye of the Scorpion
BFA 38 The Church and the Crown
DWM4 No Place Like Home
BFA 41 Nekromanteia
BFA 56 The Axis of Insanity
BFA 59 The Roof of the World
BFA 69 Three’s A Crowd
BFA 71 The Council of Nicaea
BFA 81 The Kingmaker
BFA 87 The Gathering
DWM9 Cuddlesome
BFA 99 Son of the Dragon
BFA 102 The Mind’s Eye
BFA 104 The Bride of Peladon
BFA 102 Mission of the Viyrans
BFA 117 The Judgement of Isskar
BFA 91 Circular Time (iv)
BFA 48 Davros
IV Cryptobiosis
BFA 90 Year of the Pig
BFA 3 Whispers of Terror
BFA 35 …ish
BFA 86 The Reaping
BFA 51 The Wormery
BFA 33½ The Maltese Penguin
BFA 14 The Holy Terror
DWM3 The Ratings War
Ex2 Excelis Rising
III Her Final Flight
BFA 94 I.D. & Urgent Calls
BFA 6 The Marian Conspiracy
BFA 1 The Sirens of Time
BFA 9 The Spectre of Lanyon Moor
BFA 11 The Apocalypse Element
BFA 22 Bloodtide
BFA 23 Project: Twilight
BFA 37 The Sandman
BFA 40 Jubilee
BFA 43 Doctor Who and the Pirates
I Real Time
BFA 45 Project: Lazarus
BFA 57 Arrangements for War
BFA 60 Medicinal Purposes
BFA 78 Pier Pressure
BFA 84 The Nowhere Place
BFA 100 100
BFA 105 The Condemned
BFA 108 Assassin in the Limelight
BFA 111 The Doomwood Curse
BFA 114 Brotherhood of the Daleks
VII Return of the Krotons
BFA 116 The Raincloud Man
BFA 27 The One Doctor
BFA 65 The Juggernauts
BFA 68 Catch-1782
BFA 73 Thicker than Water
BFA 97 The Wishing Beast & The Vanity Box
BFA 70 Unregenerate!
BFA 85 Red
BFA 39 Bang-Bang-a-Boom!
BFA 46 Flip-Flop
BFA 12 The Fires of Vulcan
BFA 5 The Fearmonger
BFA 7 The Genocide Machine
BFA 21 Dust Breeding
BFA 25 Colditz
BFA 36 The Rapture
BFA 58 The Harvest
BFA 67 Dreamtime
BFA 74 LIVE 34
BFA 79 Night Thoughts
BFA 82 The Settling
BFA 89 No Man’s Land
BFA 92 Nocturne
BFA 106 The Dark Husband
BFA 115 Forty Five
BFA 13 The Shadow of the Scourge
BFA 42 The Dark Flame
Ex3 Excelis Decays
DWM2 Last of the Titans
BFA 45 Project: Lazarus
BFA 49 Master
V Return of the Daleks
BFA 1 The Sirens of Time
BFA 96 Valhalla
BFA 98 Frozen Time
BFA 109 The Death Collectors & Spider’s Shadow
BFA 112 Kingdom of Silver & Keepsake
II Shada
BFA 16 Storm Warning
BFA 17 Sword of Orion
BFA 18 The Stones of Venice
BFA 19 Minuet in Hell
BFA 28 Invaders from Mars
BFA 29 The Chimes of Midnight
DWM5 Living Legend
BFA 30 Seasons of Fear
BFA 31 Embrace the Darkness
BFA 32 The Time of the Daleks
BFA 33 Neverland
BFA 50 Zagreus
BFA 52 Scherzo
BFA 53 The Creed of the Kromon
BFA 54 The Natural History of Fear
BFA 55 The Twilight Kingdom
BFA 61 Faith Stealer
BFA 62 The Last
BFA 63 Caerdroia
BFA 64 The Next Life
BFA 72 Terror Firma
BFA 75 Scaredy Cat
BFA 77 Other Lives
BFA 80 Time Works
BFA 83 Something Inside
BFA 88 Memory Lane
BFA 101 Absolution
BFA 103 The Girl Who Never Was

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The window

Has anyone else ever noticed that in the train carriages where it tells you not to lean out if the window, it is phrased as a direct imperative – “Nicht hinauslehnen!” “Ne pas se pencher au déhors!” “Do not lean out!” – in German, French and English, but in Italian it is “E pericoloso sporgesi!” – you are given the information that it is dangerous, but it’s up to you whether you choose to lean out or not!

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Maternity leave

There are five countries in the world (out of 173 surveyed, though there are 192 UN member states so some must have fallen through the cracks) which do not provide, or require employers to provide, any form of paid maternity leave.

Four of them are Lesotho, Liberia, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.

Can you guess what the fifth is?

The United States of America.

(Hat-tip to Steven Hill on the always excellent .)

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January Books 17) Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare

This was one play of which I knew almost nothing except that it is a love story set during the siege of Troy between Troilus, the son of King Priam, and a woman called Cressida. Actually I found it one of the most interesting plays from the point of view of sex and gender, disappointingly weakened in the final scenes (though probably a skilled director could rescue it).

The most striking thing is that the Greeks are all men, and their camp is a boys’ club (Achilles sulking in his tent because they won’t play with him on his terms, laddish carousing with Hector the night before he is killed). The city of Troy on the other hand is more gender-balanced: Cressida, of course, but also Helen, Andromache and especially Cassandra play important roles in the scenes set there.

Cressida is one of the great Shakespeare women characters. She is much more reflective about her situation than similarly placed Juliet and Rosalind; she bonks Troilus senseless (no qualms about marriage vows, we note); she is clearly deeply upset at being sent to join her father in the Greek camp, but banters successfully with the Greeks once she arrives.

And then there’s Act 5 Scene 2, where Troilus, Ulysses and Thersites witness Cressida apparently cheating on Troilus with the Greek soldier Diomede. The play fails in that we don’t really get Cressida’s side of the story. She gets a valedictory monologue of just six lines, and then vanishes from the script – she does send Troilus a letter but he tears it up without reading it. It’s a poor sendoff to an interesting character; her attraction for Diomedes seems to come out of nowhere. Probably an imaginative director and a good actress could put some credibility into her situation, but it is uphill work for that last scene or two.

The other love affair is that of Achilles with himself, a love shared by his Myrmidons who cut Hector down in the final scene. There is a lot of homoerotic subtext on the Greek side, and Thersites must be the campest character in the whole of Shakespeare.

I abandoned Arkangel’s audio production of this play at quite an early stage, as I was having difficulty telling the Greeks apart, and watched instead the 1981 BBC production. Jonathan Miller as director and Suzanne Burden as Cressida don’t really resolve her part of the story satisfactorily. There are some good performances: The Incredible Orlando (real name Jack Birkitt) as Thersites, Benjamin Whitrow as Ulysses, and most impressively Charles Gray as Pandarus (that’s Charles Gray with an a, the actor, not Charles Grey with an e, the 18th-century lover of the Duchess of Devonshire after whom Earl Grey tea is named). But Miller for some reason trims a lot of Thersites and most of Achilles’ Myrmidons, and there are a lot of moments when the actors’ beards seem to be performing better than their owners.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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Can’t resist it…

Tiptree award meme: bold if you’ve read it, italic if you’ve started, struck through if you hated it. (From .)

2007 The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
2006 The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente and Half Life by Shelley Jackson; with special recognition for Julie Phillips biography of James Tiptree, Jr., James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
2005: Air by Geoff Ryman
2004: Camouflage by Joe Haldeman and Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo
2003: Set This House In Order: A Romance Of Souls by Matt Ruff
2002: Light by M. John Harrison and "Stories for Men" by John Kessel
2001: The Kappa Child by Hiromi Goto
2000: Wild Life by Molly Gloss
1999: The Conqueror’s Child by Suzy McKee Charnas
1998: "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" by Raphael Carter
1997: Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey and "Travels With The Snow Queen" by Kelly Link
1996: "Mountain Ways" by Ursula K. Le Guin, and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
1995: Waking The Moon by Elizabeth Hand and The Memoirs Of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Theodore Roszak
1994: "The Matter of Seggri" by Ursula K. Le Guin and Larque on the Wing by Nancy Springer
1993: Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
1992: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
1991: A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason, and White Queen by Gwyneth Jones

Retrospective Award: Motherlines and Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas; The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinThe Female Man and "When It Changed" by Joanna Russ

Not too bad, but capable of improvement.

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January Books 16) Geschiedenis van Cyprus, by Alain Blondy

This is a Dutch translation of Blondy’s short (120-page) 1996 history of Cyprus in the Que sais-je? series. Its most interesting feature is that, where most books on Cyprus start the clock in 1974 (or if you are lucky 1963 or even 1960), Blondy fits the first thirty-five years of independence into the last seven pages. The narrative is therefore a bit rushed. We start off in prehistory, then Greeks, Assyrians, Egyptians and Arabs rule in turn, and by page 40 we have reached Richard the Lion Heart. The next 35 pages are about the 300 years of francophone rule mainly by the de Lusignans; in contrast, 80 years of rule by Venice are disposed of in four pages (mostly about fortifying Nicosia), and the next 30 pages cover 400 years under both the Ottomans and the British; which is an interesting insight into what gets put in and what gets left out if a professor from the Sorbonne writes your history. Frankly (and I choose that word very carefully) the most interesting thing about the de Lusignans was that they and their government spoke French.

Blondy’s real interest is in Malta under the rule of the Knights, as you can tell from the enthusiasm with which he mentions them here when he can. He tends otherwise to concentrate on the standard Greek Cypriot version of the island’s history, which made my revisionist hackles rise: quite apart from the Turks, what happened to the Latins who were so powerful under the Lusignans and Venetians? When do we first see a permanent Islamic presence on the island? What difference did the Suez Canal make? None of these questions is asked, let alone answered.

I shouldn’t be too harsh: one can’t expect too much from books in the Que sais-je? series. There were lots of facts here I hadn’t known (eg that Cyprus was the birthplace of the philosopher Zeno and Paul’s disciple Barnabas). I didn’t catch any actual errors of fact other than omission. And I haven’t seen any history of Cyprus of this short length covering such a long time period. But I couldn’t really recommend this as more than a starting point for French (or Dutch) readers.

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Four more BF plays

Frozen Time revives the Ice Warriors for the first time in ages, and also the Seventh Doctor who appears to have been frozen in with a consignment of criminal Martians only to be unfrozen in a somewhat amnesiac state. The idea of the amnesiac Doctor is just as annoying when it is Seven compared to Eight, and the plot is really a retread of the original Ice Warriors story, but the cast is stellar – Bond girl Maryam d’Abo plays a French scientist, Nicholas Calf plays Lord Barset, doomed and deluded leader of the expedition. Some great scenes here, and generally good stuff.

In Son of the Dragon, the Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem end up in a straight historical story where they are the only sfnal elements, encountering the real Dracula (played by James Purefoy) and his brother Radu the Handsome (played with rather more authority by Douglas Hodge). There is always a problem with the pure historical stories (which Erimem has more than her fair share of – see also The Church and the Crown, The Council of Nicæa, The Veiled Leopard and arguably The Kingmaker which is at least as historical as The Romans) in that they have to decide if they are going for entertainment or being didactic. Steve Lyons here has gone more on the didactic, sticking almost too close to what is known of the historical record, with the entertainment provided by the usual companions-getting-separated larks, and Erimem being prepared to meet her fate, which makes this one of his less gripping efforts. Poor Nicola Bryant in particular gets some lousy material to work with as Peri, but Caroline Morris, obviously preparing for her exit, is good as ever. I will have been among the few listeners who winced at the mispronunciations of Târgovişte and the Argeş river.

100 BC is another pure historical play: the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn get all mixed up with whether or not they have accidentally-on-purpose prevented Julius Cæsar’s parents from conceiving him in the year of the title. It’s essentially a one-joke story, and a good joke too, but perhaps stretched a little bit.

Rob Shearman picks up some of the ideas from his own Jubilee and reworks them in My Own Private Mozart, in which John Sessions plays millions of (well, half a dozen) clones of Mozart including the original. Again a one-joke story, but less funny.

Joe Lidster’s Bedtime Story has a shape-shifting alien working through the centuries to get its revenge on a human family, and the Doctor trying to break the spell. It has the typical Lidster success of little moments of horror with his equally typical failure of overall plot implausibilities.

Paul Cornell’s The 100 Days of the Doctor has the Doctor fighting off an intelligent virus which will kill him in, well, 100 days, and visiting various other parts of his own Big Finish continuity to try and prevent his own death. Very fannish, but nicely done.

Robert Glenister was brought in as Selateen in The Caves of Androzani to help kill off Peter Davison, and here he is brought in to help dispose of Conrad Westmaas as C’rizz. Given that C’rizz is a reformed psychopathic killer reptilian, we always knew what the end was likely to be, and indeed the story is rather better on the Doctor/Charley relationship, where she accuses him of reminiscing about how things were better before C’rizz joined them (though in my humble opinion, if this is the Doctor’s view, he is right). Still, C’rizz manages to go out with a bang.

Since C’rizz is now gone, I should write up my general impressions of his 14 appearances (all with the Eighth Doctor and Charley). To be honest, they are a bit patchy. Part of this is because the whole narrative goes down a blind universe at the very beginning; and what is probably the best of the C’rizz stories, The Natural History of Fear, depends rather crucially on the listener having built up an affection for the character which I really hadn’t managed to do at that stage (it is only C’rizz’s second story, and arguably not even that). The others I particularly liked were The Twilight Kingdom, Caerdroia, Terror Firma and Time Works. There are some real turkeys as well, which I won’t embarrass by naming here except to point out that The Next Life is the only misfire I have yet encountered from the pen of Alan Barnes. Not C’rizz’s fault, and certainly not Conrad Westmaas’s, but the concetration on weird bendings of time and space as opposed to, you know, plot and character which seemes to have typified Big finish’s approach to the Eighth Doctor did not do him any favours.

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January Books 15) Fortunata and Jacinta, by Benito Pérez Galdós

I bought this book a long time ago, on a visit to a Balkan capital where this was the only thing that looked even vaguely interesting in the only bookshop in town that sold books in English. It took me a long time to get around to reading it, and also a long time to read it – it is over 800 pages.

But it is rather good. Fortunata and Jacinta are two women in 1870s Madrid who both love Juanito Santa Cruz, the scion of a dynasty of clothing magnates; Fortunata is working class and bears him a child; Jacinta, his cousin, marries him by a family arrangement which becomes largely a love match. Most of the book is about Fortunata’s ups and downs as she bounces from man to man, Santa Cruz always in the background, and Jacinta vaguely and uneasily aware of her rival.

Pérez Galdós is often compared with Dickens, but I think he’s more in the line of the great Russian novelists – he is not trying to be even a little bit funny (none of the characters are simple caricatures – even his belching priest displays a deep insight in one important chapter). He is also very much engaged with both high and low politics – Spain in the early 1870s had a lot of regime changes (I had no idea!) and also Santa Cruz’s exploitation of Fortunata is surely intended in part as metaphor for the class struggle. She is certainly the most interesting character in the book, but there are plenty of them.

Anyway, it is rather long, but I felt it worth making the effort in the end. I see that the same author’s Compassion is on this list, so I may even give it a try some time.

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January Books 14) Farmer in the Sky

I realised that I have already written up two of the three winners of the retro-Hugos for Best Novel (here and herePebble in the Sky, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, E.E. 'Doc' Smith's First Lensman and Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, in that order. I've read them all except, oddly, the Asimov, and would certainly have voted for the Vance (incidentally the only author still living either today or in 2001 when the award was made). But my tastes are peculiar.

Farmer in the Sky is what would now be called a YA novel a juvenile (thanks, ), with our narrator, his father, his stepmother and her daughter leaving Earth to build a new colony on Ganymede. There is a significant amount of product placement for the scouting movement, which is not surprising as it was originally serialised in a scouts magazine. We encounter nice guys and nasty guys, and even a few women, though they don't get to speak much. There is a major natural disaster which wipes out two thirds of the colony, but our hero and most of his family survive. At the end of the book, our hero discovers some alien technology which incidentally saves his life.

A lot of this was already pretty standard sfnal fare even in 1950, but Heinlein fuses it all together into a coherent and literate package, which has a colossal amount of sensawunda, sufficient to keep the book going at full pace to the end and to keep its reputation alive among fans for decades. (He even manages the pro-scouting propaganda fairly discreetly, though of course this also helps underpin the gender and racial constraints of the narrative.)

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Prefatory material

Preface Of The Author

It is not my intention to detain the reader by expatiating on the variety or the importance of the subject, which I have undertaken to treat; since the merit of the choice would serve to render the weakness of the execution still more apparent, and still less excusable. But as I have presumed to lay before the public a first volume only of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it will, perhaps, be expected that I should explain, in a few words, the nature and limits of my general plan.

The memorable series of revolutions, which in the course of about thirteen centuries gradually undermined, and at length destroyed, the solid fabric of human greatness, may, with some propriety, be divided into the three following periods:

I. The first of these periods may be traced from the age of Trajan and the Antonines, when the Roman monarchy, having attained its full strength and maturity, began to verge towards its decline; and will extend to the subversion of the Western Empire, by the barbarians of Germany and Scythia, the rude ancestors of the most polished nations of modern Europe. This extraordinary revolution, which subjected Rome to the power of a Gothic conqueror, was completed about the beginning of the sixth century.

II. The second period of the Decline and Fall of Rome may be supposed to commence with the reign of Justinian, who, by his laws, as well as by his victories, restored a transient splendor to the Eastern Empire. It will comprehend the invasion of Italy by the Lombards; the conquest of the Asiatic and African provinces by the Arabs, who embraced the religion of Mahomet; the revolt of the Roman people against the feeble princes of Constantinople; and the elevation of Charlemagne, who, in the year eight hundred, established the second, or German Empire of the West

III. The last and longest of these periods includes about six centuries and a half; from the revival of the Western Empire, till the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, and the extinction of a degenerate race of princes, who continued to assume the titles of Caesar and Augustus, after their dominions were contracted to the limits of a single city; in which the language, as well as manners, of the ancient Romans, had been long since forgotten. The writer who should undertake to relate the events of this period, would find himself obliged to enter into the general history of the Crusades, as far as they contributed to the ruin of the Greek Empire; and he would scarcely be able to restrain his curiosity from making some inquiry into the state of the city of Rome, during the darkness and confusion of the middle ages.

As I have ventured, perhaps too hastily, to commit to the press a work which in every sense of the word, deserves the epithet of imperfect. I consider myself as contracting an engagement to finish, most probably in a second volume, a the first of these memorable periods; and to deliver to the Public the complete History of the Decline and Fall of Rome, from the age of the Antonines to the subversion of the Western Empire. With regard to the subsequent periods, though I may entertain some hopes, I dare not presume to give any assurances. The execution of the extensive plan which I have described, would connect the ancient and modern history of the world; but it would require many years of health, of leisure, and of perseverance.

Bentinck Street, February 1, 1776.

P. S. The entire History, which is now published, of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the West, abundantly discharges my engagements with the Public. Perhaps their favorable opinion may encourage me to prosecute a work, which, however laborious it may seem, is the most agreeable occupation of my leisure hours.

Bentinck Street, March 1, 1781.

An Author easily persuades himself that the public opinion is still favorable to his labors; and I have now embraced the serious resolution of proceeding to the last period of my original design, and of the Roman Empire, the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, in the year one thousand four hundred and fifty-three. The most patient Reader, who computes that three ponderous volumes have been already employed on the events of four centuries, may, perhaps, be alarmed at the long prospect of nine hundred years. But it is not my intention to expatiate with the same minuteness on the whole series of the Byzantine history. At our entrance into this period, the reign of Justinian, and the conquests of the Mahometans, will deserve and detain our attention, and the last age of Constantinople (the Crusades and the Turks) is connected with the revolutions of Modern Europe. From the seventh to the eleventh century, the obscure interval will be supplied by a concise narrative of such facts as may still appear either interesting or important.

Preface To The First Volume.

Diligence and accuracy are the only merits which an historical writer may ascribe to himself; if any merit, indeed, can be assumed from the performance of an indispensable duty. I may therefore be allowed to say, that I have carefully examined all the original materials that could illustrate the subject which I had undertaken to treat. Should I ever complete the extensive design which has been sketched out in the Preface, I might perhaps conclude it with a critical account of the authors consulted during the progress of the whole work; and however such an attempt might incur the censure of ostentation, I am persuaded that it would be susceptible of entertainment, as well as information.

At present I shall content myself with a single observation.

The biographers, who, under the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine, composed, or rather compiled, the lives of the Emperors, from Hadrian to the sons of Carus, are usually mentioned under the names of Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, Aelius Lampridius, Vulcatius Gallicanus, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus. But there is so much perplexity in the titles of the MSS., and so many disputes have arisen among the critics (see Fabricius, Biblioth. Latin. l. iii. c. 6) concerning their number, their names, and their respective property, that for the most part I have quoted them without distinction, under the general and well-known title of the Augustan History.

Preface To The Fourth Volume Of The Original Quarto Edition.

I now discharge my promise, and complete my design, of writing the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, both in the West and the East. The whole period extends from the age of Trajan and the Antonines, to the taking of Constantinople by Mahomet the Second; and includes a review of the Crusades, and the state of Rome during the middle ages. Since the publication of the first volume, twelve years have elapsed; twelve years, according to my wish, “of health, of leisure, and of perseverance.” I may now congratulate my deliverance from a long and laborious service, and my satisfaction will be pure and perfect, if the public favor should be extended to the conclusion of my work.

It was my first intention to have collected, under one view, the numerous authors, of every age and language, from whom I have derived the materials of this history; and I am still convinced that the apparent ostentation would be more than compensated by real use. If I have renounced this idea, if I have declined an undertaking which had obtained the approbation of a master-artist, my excuse may be found in the extreme difficulty of assigning a proper measure to such a catalogue. A naked list of names and editions would not be satisfactory either to myself or my readers: the characters of the principal Authors of the Roman and Byzantine History have been occasionally connected with the events which they describe; a more copious and critical inquiry might indeed deserve, but it would demand, an elaborate volume, which might swell by degrees into a general library of historical writers. For the present, I shall content myself with renewing my serious protestation, that I have always endeavored to draw from the fountain-head; that my curiosity, as well as a sense of duty, has always urged me to study the originals; and that, if they have sometimes eluded my search, I have carefully marked the secondary evidence, on whose faith a passage or a fact were reduced to depend.

I shall soon revisit the banks of the Lake of Lausanne, a country which I have known and loved from my early youth. Under a mild government, amidst a beauteous landscape, in a life of leisure and independence, and among a people of easy and elegant manners, I have enjoyed, and may again hope to enjoy, the varied pleasures of retirement and society. But I shall ever glory in the name and character of an Englishman: I am proud of my birth in a free and enlightened country; and the approbation of that country is the best and most honorable reward of my labors. Were I ambitious of any other Patron than the Public, I would inscribe this work to a Statesman, who, in a long, a stormy, and at length an unfortunate administration, had many political opponents, almost without a personal enemy; who has retained, in his fall from power, many faithful and disinterested friends; and who, under the pressure of severe infirmity, enjoys the lively vigor of his mind, and the felicity of his incomparable temper. Lord North will permit me to express the feelings of friendship in the language of truth: but even truth and friendship should be silent, if he still dispensed the favors of the crown.

In a remote solitude, vanity may still whisper in my ear, that my readers, perhaps, may inquire whether, in the conclusion of the present work, I am now taking an everlasting farewell. They shall hear all that I know myself, and all that I could reveal to the most intimate friend. The motives of action or silence are now equally balanced; nor can I pronounce, in my most secret thoughts, on which side the scale will preponderate. I cannot dissemble that six quartos must have tried, and may have exhausted, the indulgence of the Public; that, in the repetition of similar attempts, a successful Author has much more to lose than he can hope to gain; that I am now descending into the vale of years; and that the most respectable of my countrymen, the men whom I aspire to imitate, have resigned the pen of history about the same period of their lives. Yet I consider that the annals of ancient and modern times may afford many rich and interesting subjects; that I am still possessed of health and leisure; that by the practice of writing, some skill and facility must be acquired; and that, in the ardent pursuit of truth and knowledge, I am not conscious of decay. To an active mind, indolence is more painful than labor; and the first months of my liberty will be occupied and amused in the excursions of curiosity and taste. By such temptations, I have been sometimes seduced from the rigid duty even of a pleasing and voluntary task: but my time will now be my own; and in the use or abuse of independence, I shall no longer fear my own reproaches or those of my friends. I am fairly entitled to a year of jubilee: next summer and the following winter will rapidly pass away; and experience only can determine whether I shall still prefer the freedom and variety of study to the design and composition of a regular work, which animates, while it confines, the daily application of the Author.

Caprice and accident may influence my choice; but the dexterity of self-love will contrive to applaud either active industry or philosophic repose.

Downing Street, May 1, 1788.

P. S. I shall embrace this opportunity of introducing two verbal remarks, which have not conveniently offered themselves to my notice. 1. As often as I use the definitions of beyond the Alps, the Rhine, the Danube, &c., I generally suppose myself at Rome, and afterwards at Constantinople; without observing whether this relative geography may agree with the local, but variable, situation of the reader, or the historian. 2. In proper names of foreign, and especially of Oriental origin, it should be always our aim to express, in our English version, a faithful copy of the original. But this rule, which is founded on a just regard to uniformity and truth, must often be relaxed; and the exceptions will be limited or enlarged by the custom of the language and the taste of the interpreter. Our alphabets may be often defective; a harsh sound, an uncouth spelling, might offend the ear or the eye of our countrymen; and some words, notoriously corrupt, are fixed, and, as it were, naturalized in the vulgar tongue. The prophet Mohammed can no longer be stripped of the famous, though improper, appellation of Mahomet: the well-known cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, would almost be lost in the strange descriptions of Haleb, Demashk, and Al Cahira: the titles and offices of the Ottoman empire are fashioned by the practice of three hundred years; and we are pleased to blend the three Chinese monosyllables, Con-fu-tzee, in the respectable name of Confucius, or even to adopt the Portuguese corruption of Mandarin. But I would vary the use of Zoroaster and Zerdusht, as I drew my information from Greece or Persia: since our connection with India, the genuine Timour is restored to the throne of Tamerlane: our most correct writers have retrenched the Al, the superfluous article, from the Koran; and we escape an ambiguous termination, by adopting Moslem instead of Musulman, in the plural number. In these, and in a thousand examples, the shades of distinction are often minute; and I can feel, where I cannot explain, the motives of my choice.

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Guardian books: Travel and War – The End

The Guardian’s 1000 books series comes to an end with the rather peculiar assortment of Travel and War (and thanks once again to for posting the list). 129 books here, of which I have read 36 (and started two more). My vote for neglected classic on the list goes to The Good Soldier Švejk.

Previous Guardian lists:
Family and Self
State of the Nation

SF and Fantasy

Analysis of all of these coming tomorrow.

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Jumping off the planet

I’ve been idly speculating of late: how small would an asteroid, minor planet or satellite need to be for the average person to be able to jump right off it?

The world record for the high jump at present is 2.43 metres. Ouch. More modestly, I guess I can raise my own centre of gravity by at least a metre if I jump up from a crouching position. So using the old equation:

mgh = ½mv2

makes my takeoff velocity around 4.5 metres per second, before gravity inevitably drags me down.

Now, the escape velocity of any spherical body of mass M and radius r is √(2GM/r) – actually, I think I want to chage this around a bit: the volume of yer sphere is 4πr3/3, so its density is 3M/4πr3, so the escape velocity expressed in terms of the density ρ and the radius r is √(8πGρ/3) * r.

Well. The Earth’s escape velocity is about 11 km per second. This is roughly 2400 times faster than I can jump. Since the Earth’s radius is around 6400 km, I could probably jump off a celestial body of the Earth’s density which had a radius of about 2.7 km or smaller

The Earth’s density is roughly 5.5 grams per cubic centimetre (we live on the densest of the planets in our system). Asteroid densities are reckoned to be more in the 1.5 – 3 grams per cubic centimetre range. So in practice, I could probably jump off yer average asteroid or satellite of the 4-6 km size range. Most of the well known ones are bigger than that. Most of the obscure ones, almost by definition, are smaller.

Indeed, Mars’s satellite Phobos, whose mean radius is 11.1 km, has a numerically similar escape velocity of 11.3 metres per second – as you may vaguely remember fron Arthur C. Clarke’s story, “Hide-and-Seek”.

OK, bedtime now.

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Guardian books: SF and Fantasy

Too many favourites on here to pick any in particular. Not surprisingly I score better here than on any three of the previous lists combined, with 85 out of 149 books that I have read and also most of Pratchett (though he’s not quite as prolific as Balzac). Indeed, I have reviewed no fewer than 38 of these at greater or lesser length on line, and three of them are in my imminently-to-read pile.

Previous Guardian lists:
Family and Self
State of the Nation

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Two days’ worth of Guardian books

Two days’ worth of Guardian novels to report here, because of last night’s distractions. Thanks again to for supplying the lists. They are two particularly odd selections.

I have read only 24 out of 145 of the Guardian’s the “Family and Self” selection, with another four started but not finished. It is interesting that they have chosen a number of comics in this section – my pick of the lot is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. The selection also includes Proust as a single unit.

I did far worse on the “State of the Nation” selection – presumably these are meant to be the more political novels, and I actually work in politics, but nonetheless scored a mere 17 out of 133. My picks are boringly conventional, Middlemarch, Les Miserables and Vanity Fair.

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January Books 13) Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare

I studied Twelfth Night in a short-lived attempt at an O-level in Drama during my sixth-form years, and then saw a youthful production of it shortly after I moved back to Belfast in 1991 (I have a vague memory that James Nesbitt played Feste, but that can’t be right), so this is one of the plays I knew reasonably well.

It’s pretty good. Not as intrinsically good as the similar Midsummer Night’s Dream and Comedy of Errors, but close: the main plot of the siblings being confused with each other is neatly done (though interestingly with a much stronger role for the sister than the brother); the subplot of Malvolio’s fall needs more careful treatment, as it is basically the humour of cruelty, and one needs to make Malvolio monstrous enough not to engage too much of the audience’s sympathy.

Arkangel have done one of their best productions here. Niamh Cusack is Viola; Julian Glover, doing a Scottish accent, is Malvolio; Dinsdale Landen is a suitably disgusting Sir Tony Belch; Arkangel stalwart Amanda Root is Olivia; and most gloriously, Paterson Joseph is Feste, playing it as if it was the role he was born to play (as of course he does with everything) – particularly when he is playing Feste playing the clergyman Sir Topas. Somehow the chemistry seems to have worked between the big name stars, and the result is fantastic.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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Media coverage

Those of you who get the free Metro newspaper in London may have paused briefly today over the centre spread, which covers my employers – or to be more specific, my boss.

I am awaiting his reaction, when he wakes up in New York later, to the crude but amusing illustration they knocked up for the article

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Last night’s events

I missed watching the inauguration live last night because I was at a reception in the European Parliament launching some rather beautiful photographs of Timor Leste (as East Timor prefers to be known these days) taken by Luis Ramos Pinto. The foreign minister was also there. It’s not a country I have ever worked on professionally, but the MEP hosting the event has helped me in the past and I wanted to show support. Also, of course, Timor Leste is a very interesting place in its own right.

The photographer introduced his exhibition in English, but both the MEP and the minister made short speeches in Portuguese, which I think is the first time I’ve been an event which was largely lusophone (apart from a church service I attended in Porto many years ago). It was a salutary reminder that there are other languages than English with a worldwide reach. And the event as a whole was also a nice reminder, on a day when millions of people were (rightly) celebrating the triumph of the American narrative, that there are other, more recent, narratives of struggle and liberation out there.

I did catch up with Obama’s speech this morning. It did not disappoint. He’s not a great soundbite man (which is why he didn’t really shine in the debates). But the substance was all there, and the long Bush nightmare is over.

The only one of his senior officials who I have actually met is the incoming National Security Adviser, Jim Jones, who I went to see once at SHAPE in Mons when he was SACEUR (sorry for the mystifying abbreviations but spelling them out in full is tedious). He impressed me – a Marine general with an actual brain; another of Obama’s good picks.

Pedantic point: I was a bit startled by Obama’s statement that forty-four Americans have now taken the oath – by my count, it’s forty-three, because of Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms. (Or was there some other occasion I’ve forgotten? I make the total number of inaugurations 63, assuming that all 19 re-elections of an incumbent required a swearing-in ceremony.)

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