Books acquired in May

METAtropolis by John Scalzi (2009)
The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (2004)
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1992)
Flora Segunda: Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog by Ysabeau S. Wilce (2007)
Where Angels Fear by Rebecca Levene (1999)
The Magic Cup by Andrew M Greeley (1984)
The Golden Ass by Milo Manara (2000)
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway 
The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling (1969) 
Stopping for a Spell by Diana Wynne Jones (2002)
A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland (2008) 
Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton (2001)
King Edward III by William Shakespeare (1998)
Eerste keer by Sibylline (2008)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2009)
The Golden Ass by Apuleius (2008)
Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North by Stuart Maconie (2008)
Ulysses by James Joyce (1961)
Fall Out: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Prisoner by Alan Stevens (2008)
Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1997)
Washington Square by Henry James (1963)
Prisoner by Dave Rogers (1993)
Storybook Love (Fables) by B Willingham (2004)
Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (2009)
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (1991)
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (2002)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1958)
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (2007)
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe (2007)
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1983)
Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien
On the Way to Diplomacy by Costas M. Constantinou (1996) 
Vicky Angel by Jacqueline Wilson (2001)
Anne Frank’s Story by Carol Ann Lee (2001) 
McMafia by Misha Glenny
Kushiel’s Scion by Jacqueline Carey (2008)
Collins Irish Pocket Dictionary by Séamus Mac Mathúna (2006)
The Secret of the Unicorn by Herge (2002)
The Crab with the Golden Claws by Herge (2002)
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May Books

Non-fiction: 10 (YTD 36)

Shakespeare: 4 (YTD 18)

Fiction (non-sf): 6 (YTD 22)

SF (non-Who, including Apuleius): 9 (YTD 36)

Who: 2 (YTD 14)

Comics: 2 (YTD 6)


11 (YTD 28/132) by women (Nafisi, Tocci, Mendlesohn, David, Oswald, 3x Wilson, Jenkins, Spencer, Rowling)
2 (YTD 7/132) by PoC (Nafisi, Jenkins – Apuleius discounted for being a full citizen of the Roman Empire even if he was African)
Total page count ~8,500 (YTD ~38,700)
Owned for more than one year: 5 (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [re-read], Ravens Gathering, On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, Elric)
Also re-read: The Man in the High Castle (for a total of 2, YTD 18).

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May Books 33) Jewel, by Beverly Jenkins

Browsing through LibraryThing one day, I noted that Beverly Jenkins, of whom I had not heard, was one of the highest rated authors by the owners of her books – not many, but enough to reassure me that this was not astroturfing. Her particular subgenre – African-American historical romance – is not one that I had ever considered sampling, but I thought, what the heck, and BookMooched a couple of her books.

Jewel is actually a rather nice book. I particularly appreciated the historical setting, a Black community in the northern USA (specifically, Cass County, Michigan) in the 1880s. It’s not an environment I had ever thought much about, and Jenkins has clearly done her homework: the book is perhaps intended partly as a didactic device to educate readers about that period of Black history, especially the increasingly important role of journalism, and I was happy to be educated.

I’m not a connoisseur of romance novels so feel less qualified to judge the plot. I found the setup a bit implausible (the eponymous heroine, a 24-year-old virgin, agrees to pose as a friend’s wife and then finds inevitably that the fiction becomes reality). But the execution was entertaining, with lots of sexy newlywed moments. There were no really nasty characters in the book except for the husband’s ex-girlfriend, and she is suitably dealt with. An uplifting and cheering read.

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May Books 32) Elric, by Michael Moorcock

I’ve read a certain amount of Michael Moorcock, but until now no Elric, so have filled that gap in my knowledge of sff classics. This is the Fantasy Masterworks edition which brings together The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer, which I think are the first two Elric books published though apparently several more were subsequently inserted into the internal continuity.

I found the stories a quick and undemanding read. Elric’s tortured relationship with his soul-drinking sword and his own family heritage makes him an unusually complex hero. Moorcock’s prose is always engaging and often rises to the entertainingly baroque. His roots in Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft are clear (I think a bit less Tolkien). As I have noted before, immersive fantasies don’t always work for me but this was an entertaining enough ride.

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The BBC’s Lord of the Rings

Over the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the BBC’s 1981 audio version of The Lord of the Rings, having run out of Who audios to listen to. It is very very good, and I strongly recommend it. Ian Holm as Frodo, Bill Nighy as Sam, Michael Hordern as Gandalf, and John Le Mesurier as Bilbo are excellent in their roles. (Shout out also to Stephen Thorne as Treebeard and Jack May as Théoden.) But the two key performers, in my view, are Robert Stephens as Aragorn and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum/Sméagol.

I would say the biggest performance gap between the audio and the Peter Jackson movies is that between Stephens and Viggo Mortensen. Stephens’ Aragorn is tough, damaged, wise, and (as far as we can tell) not even particularly good-looking. He carries every scene he is in, and invests dignity and authority in every line, be it Tolkien’s original words or new material from Bakewell and Sibley. (And unlike the Peter Jackson films, Aragorn’s story is left pretty much intact.)

The gap between Peter Woodthorpe and Andy Serkis is smaller but it is still in Woodthorpe’s favour. Gollum’s internal dialogue (ie his habit of talking to himself) works well for audio, and indeed here we get a number of extra scenes with Gollum’s adventures away from the main storyline. In his penultimate scene, told by Frodo that he can never have the Ring back, he complains bitterly that “nassty hobbitses doesn’t realise how long ‘never’ is”, a moment where he almost engages our sympathy. His final moments shortly afterwards are gorgeously manic and rightly expanded considerably from the few lines Gollum’s demise gets in the original text.

I remember a few years back seeing an archive interview with Tolkien where he stated with an air of elderly innocence that the books were all about Death. I wondered about this at the time, since to an extent I still read the book through my own nine-year-old eyes, and it’s not such an obvious concern of the Peter Jackson films. But it’s clearly a theme of the audio. Boromir’s funeral, to a minor key variation of the theme tune; Denethor’s suicide; Frodo and Sam facing up to death in Mordor (rather than bickering); Bilbo gradually slipping into old age; not to mention the various actual battles; these are all real and awful events in the BBC version. And the music is good, too. It is truly gripping. Get it if you can.

(The Jackson movies do score over the BBC in some respects, of course. New Zealand is a major star of the screen version; also the other members of the Fellowship not mentioned above are given more characterisation and a bit more to do. Though that is sometimes at the expense of the integrity of the story.)

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K9 and Company

Long, long before Torchwood or the Sarah Jane Adventures, the BBC made a pilot for a possible spinoff series, K9 and Company, which lasted for precisely one 50-minute episode in December 1981. The novelisation, by Terence Dudley who also wrote the script, wasn’t published until 1987, as the third the last in another series of spinoffs, Target’s Companions of Doctor Who (the two earlier books being Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma and Harry Sullivan’s War). I picked it up the other day as a quick leisure read (more my thing than Elizabeth Spencer).

Dudley also wrote novelisations of his two other two-episode Who stories. Doctor Who – Black Orchid is possibly the best Fifth Doctor novelisation; Doctor Who – The King’s Demons is one of the worst. Of the three stories as televised, Black Orchid was OK, K9 and Company dull and The King’s Demons pretty dire, so I was curious to see how Dudley would manage turning this one into print.

It’s not too bad, in fact. The beginning is a bit ropey, with Dudley insisting on giving us the exact age of each character, and some dubious descriptions of Sarah’s problems in an Ethiopian village; but it settles down and has a lot more oomph than the original. Sarah is explicitly a “girl” (as compared to Elisabeth Sladen’s svelte but mature 33 when this was made). She is tough; she sometimes prays; she has a black belt in karate; she loves driving her MGB (and there is a great chase sequence absent from the original TV version).

Some other things done to continuity: Aunt Lavinia has become an anthropologist rather than a virologist, which gives her an excuse for writing to the newspapers about witchcraft; Brendan is explicitly 14, so the reference to him doing three extra O-levels has been dropped. (As indeed O-levels had been by 1987.) The red herrings of the original (Aunt Lavinia’s mysterious disappearance, the not-so-sinister Bakers) are retained without further explanation. For some reason K9 sings “While Shepherds Watched” rather than “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” at the end.

So, more towards the Doctor Who – Black Orchid than the Doctor Who – The King’s Demons end of the spectrum, and without the silly mistakes that marred the former.

I decided to re-watch the original TV story after reading the book. My memories from two-thirds of my lifetime ago were right: it is indeed not bad but not actively interesting. Ian Sears as Brendan is a particularly weak point – an unispired performance and doesn’t change out of school uniform until halfway through (just before he is kidnapped). Worse, he is the first in a line of crap young male sidekicks inflicted on Sarah Jane in the spinoffs. (Jeremy Fitzoliver in the two Third Doctor audios, Josh Townsend in her Big Finish series – though at least the latter turned out to have hidden depths). Well done RTD and colleagues for shifting to the more successful formula of the Sarah Jane Adventures. Of the other cast, veterans Bill Fraser and especially Colin Jeavons are rather delightful. The excellent car chase from the book is a single close encounter with a tractor. Really one for completists only.

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Turn Left

This is the second of last year’s Who stories to make the Hugo shortlist (the other being Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead). I wasn’t overwhelmed with it myself on first watching, but liked it a bit more this time. (I still think Midnight was the best story of the season.)

The good bits first. Catherine Tate is fantastic in this episode, which is all about the potential of Donna Noble, an ordinary person, to change the world. Donna is one of the best Who companions ever, as has explained much more eloquently than I can. This is the third Doctor-lite episode of New Who, and the first to use the format to showcase the companion’s story. It is impossible to imagine Rose or Martha bearing the same weight of narrative. (Jack and Sarah Jane get their own spinoff series, but both of course are older characters.)

The second good thing about the story is the portrayal of post-apocalypse Britain. I have written before about politics in parallel universes. Here we slip much more to the Inferno model, as mass destruction leads the government to abolish civil liberties and set up concentration camps for the non-English. The great thing about this story is that it does so much to convey what this soty is like with surprisingly little material. Bernard Cribbins’ silent look of tearful horror as the Italians are taken away says more than paragraphs of exposition could do.

I am neutral about the episode’s use of the point of departure concept. New Who has tackled this several times Father’s Day in 2004, and not one but two Sarah Jane Adventures. So I am not wowed by the audacity of the concept; it is almost routine. Also I can’t help but notice that Pete Tyler, parallel Donna and Sarah Jane’s parents all choose to die in car accidents – Pete and Donna both throw themselves under the wheels of a passing vehicle as Rose watches. The best treatment of the point of departure I have seen (and that’s not saying much) is in the movie Sliding Doors, which cuts between the two realities. Doctor Who has yet to do a really interesting spin on it; Time Beetles are not the answer.

Not to be too negative on this point: what we are being asked to imagine is the Doctor’s world without the Doctor, where the Thames was drained, the Titanic crashed on Buckingham Palace, millions of people disintegrated into fat and the Sontarans almost poisoned the rest (though on the flip side, presumably Professor Yana will live out his life as a human and die at a ripe old age without ever realising his origin, so Harold Saxon never appeared on the political scene). Big Finish did an excellent similar story where the Brigadier has retired to Hong Kong after failing to deal with the series of alien invasions in the 1970s, and is confronted years later both by the new Doctor (played by David Warner) and by the new head of UNIT (played by one David Tennant).

My big problem with this story can be summed up in one word: Rose. It is not just Billie Piper, whose performance and particularly diction in this episode are respectively monotonic and peculiar. Did she have a cold? Was she recovering from dental treatment? I neither know not particularly care.

But the original point of Rose is that she is an ordinary girl caught up in extraordinary things, and the Rose of Turn Left has lost that. I am not one of the legion of Rose-haters among Who fans: I thought that she injected the new love-interest theme into the old companion routine very well, and made us care about her and her fate. Now she returns as a grim dimension-hopping superwoman who for some reason cannot say her own name. She never smiles (and Billie Piper has a very disarming smile). Think of the Rose / Sarah Jane and Donna / Martha encounters, and then consider the total lack of chemistry between the two leads in this episode. I don’t blame Piper; she has done her best with confusing and shallow material. But I find the Rose parts of Turn Left almost unwatchable.

I’ll also note, as others have done, that the opening sequence has the most offensive Chinese stereotypes in Doctor Who since Talons of Weng-Chiang.

I feel pretty certain that I will rank Turn Left behind the Moffatt two-parter on my ballot. (For a slightly different take, see ‘s excellent summary.) I wonder if others will react the same way. The guts of my objection are to the use of Rose as a character; for viewers who know nothing about her, I imagine this would work rather well as a Who treatment of a familiar sfnal theme, with a strong performance from the central character and some interesting thoughts about alternative history. Your mileage may vary.

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Euro-elections 2009

Well, I’ve done the page for next week’s elections on my website.

This is probably the most interesting European election in Northern Ireland since 1979 (though that is not saying much). Given the strength of their respective parties in recent contests, Diane Dodds for the DUP and Bairbre de Brún of Sinn Féin must be considered very likely to retain their parties’ seats. The interesting questions are:

  1. will Jim Allister erode enough of his former party’s vote to allow de Brún to top the poll?
  2. will he do well enough to overtake Nicholson for the third seat? And
  3. will the Unionist vote be sufficiently splintered or demoralised that Maginness overtakes the second-placed Unionist and wins the third seat for the SDLP?

I order the three questions in decreasing rank of probability – ie I think it’s entirely likely that de Brún will top the poll, but rather improbable that Unionists will fail to turn out and also to transfer votes to each other sufficiently to lose the second Unionist seat.

Incidentally this means that Northern Ireland will probably end up with three eurosceptic MEPs. I don’t have opinion poll figures to hand re the degree of popular euroscepticism in the province but I doubt that it is anywhere near 75%, let alone 100%.

Those of you voting in any part of the UK may find this site of interest / amusement.

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Triggered by a business email I just sent and by various musings on my f-list:

I really hate people signing off emails or messages “With kind regards”. It’s not up to me to describe myself as being kind, it’s up to the recipient of my supposed kindness to decide if I am getting it right.

I much prefer “With best regards” to someone I don’t know, or “Best” to people I do know. I am better placed than anyone to judge if I am sending them my best. Sure, “best” has something of the value of “most favoured nation” about it, but that’s still not bad.

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I am grateful to the Conservative Group for Europe…

…for putting into my office letterbox their well-argued briefings on why Tory MEPs should continue to sit with the EPP. I’m not sure if this was specifically because I have blogged on the topic or if it was a general mailshot to our building (most of whose occupants are media organisations, including the BBC and Associated Press). Either way, lads, feel free to knock on the door and scrounge a cup of tea next time. You will never get my vote but you may occasionally get my sympathy.

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We rewatched Midnight last night. I wrote previously that I couldn’t understand why this story didn’t get a Hugo nomination this year; I am still baffled.

I think it’s the best episode of the season, and certainly the best ever written by Russell T Davies. The sources are good sources – The Edge of Destruction, also written at the last minute by Old Who’s first script editor, putting the Tardis crew in a single set for 50 minutes; also I think Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust, where a group of tourists is trapped on the Moon, though without the sinister alien presence. (The eye of faith may detect inspiration also from Delta and the Bannermen, or The Leisure Hive, but personally I don’t.) Davies takes this and puts his own particular interpretation onto the situation, and for once his writing remains tight up to the last moment.

He’s helped by a couple of stellar performances – Lesley Sharp as Sky and the unnamed baddie, and Rakie Ayola as the hostess in particular; also from the past we have David Troughton as the Professor, and from the future Colin Morgan as Jethro. The scenes with Lesley Sharp first echoing, then synching with, then anticipating the other cast members’ lines are just incredible. (The only irritating moment is Rose’s brief appearance, which is difficult to reconcile with what we later find out she’s been doing – the similar moment in The Poison Sky is at least set in the present day.)

Quite apart from the creepiness of the basic concept, it’s a story where the Doctor’s normal cockiness and air of mystery, which normally seem to get authority figures magically co-operating with him, work against him; and his fellow passengers end up baying for his blood. It’s notable that they are not, particularly, authority figures; and the one who is nominally in charge, the Hostess, ends up being the one who saves them all. And the specific point where the Doctor’s credibility breaks down completely is when he tries to urge compassion, which rather more often works to shame other characters into cooperating. It’s a great subversion and stretching of the show’s usual assumptions.

After two stories where we’ve had the Doctor’s own intimate relations (his daughter and River Song) on screen, here we have the Doctor observing and interacting with several other family dynamics – Biff, Val and Jethro; the Professor and Dee Dee; Sky and her absent ex; perhaps also the Hostess and the crew. (Indeed, it might have been better if this had been shown between The Doctor’s Daughter and Silence in the Library, as was originally planned.)

Midnight was Russell T Davies’ nineteenth story for Who, which puts him ahead of the 18 stories written entirely or partly by Robert Holmes. Andy Murray suggests (in his piece in Time and Relative Dissertations in Space) that we can see the frustrated attempts of the tall, fair-haired Chancellor Goth to hunt down and destroy the Doctor as the tall, fair-haired Holmes working through his own frustration with the central character of the show. Note that in this story the Doctor loses his authority over the other passengers and even his voice, and that he is actually killed off at the beginning of the next story; am I going too far in detecting a subconscious desire to get rid of him on the part of the executive producer and chief writer? (Not that there is the same physical resemblance between RTD and the villain of either story.)

Two further pieces of trivia from the BBC via Wikipedia: it is the first story since Genesis of the Daleks where the Tardis does not appear, and the only Who story where the villain is never named.

(Robert Holmes’ 18 stories: The Krotons, The Space Pirates, Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, Carnival of Monsters, The Time Warrior, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Sun Makers, The Ribos Operation, The Power of Kroll, The Caves of Androzani, The Two Doctors, and The Mysterious Planet plus also The Ark In Space, The Brain of Morbius, Pyramids of Mars and the first episode of The Ultimate Foe. Of course, in screen time he is still well ahead of RTD, since all but one of the above were at least the equivalent of four 25-minute episodes.)

Posted in Uncategorised / METAtropolis

Browsing through the Hugo shortlists, I discovered that one of the Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form nominees is an audiobook anthology with stories by Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder, edited by Scalzi. Since I’m working to the end of the BBC Lord of the Rings at the moment, this seemed like a good bet for commuting over the next few weeks, conveniently before the Hugo deadline.

Turns out it’s only available from, which I didn’t have an account on. Bah. Oh well, sign up for free, spend some more time downloading and installing the proprietary software. Shove in my Samsung YP-U2 to download the files.

No. It turns out that doesn’t support my MP3 player.

Well, too bad. I’m not buying a new MP3 player just to listen to METAtropolis. Instead I’m deleting the proprietary software, cancelling my account, and continuing to enjoy my DRM-free listening experience. And I have been made a little more of an activist in the process.

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May Books 29) The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher

The two noble kinsmen of the title are Palamon and Arcite, kin of the ruler of Thebes, taken as prisoners of war to Athens where they both fall in love with the Duke’s sister. Arcite is paroled, Palamon escapes, and they are duelling to the death for the fair Emilia when the Duke discovers them and makes them go away for a while in order to come back and fight properly. Arcite wins the combat, but just as Palamon and his team-mates are about to be executed, Arcite falls off his horse and dies, so Palamon gets to marry Emilia and everyone (except Arcite) lives happily ever after.

As you can tell from the summary, the sexual politics of this play is a bit, er, challenging. And I haven’t mentioned the unfortunate jailer’s daughter who falls in love with Palamon, engineers his escape, goes mad with guilt, and eventually goes off with the anonymous Athenian bloke who was always in love with her. He is described in the cast list as “Wooer”. Her doctor advises him to have sex with her even though she thinks he is Palamon, but only if it will make her feel better.

As you can tell from that second paragraph, the deeper sexual politics of this play is a bit, er, challenging. And I haven’t mentioned the deep manly love that Palamon and Arcite profess for one another when they are not competing to win Emilia, nor Emilia’s early professed deep womanly love for the otherwise unmentioned Flavinia (though if I was directing this I would make her the jailer’s daughter). The least odd bit of the play is the first scene where three widowed queens beg the Duke of Athens to make war on Thebes to recover their husbands’ corpses. There is also a comic rustic dance and some divine manifestations.

And yet plenty of other Shakespeare plays have very dodgy sexual politics – thinking especially of The Taming of the Shrew – and can be staged effectively, and I expect that this is no exception. Arkangel have made a very decent fist of it, especially with Jonathan Firth as Palamon and Sarah-Jane Holm as the jailer’s daughter (and I’ve been listening to her father as Frodo Baggins too). I can understand why it is relatively obscure, but I am a little surprised that there has never been a TV or film version of it. It is not a particularly strong piece of work, but it’s not all that bad.

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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Linkspam for 28-5-2009

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May Books 28) Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller

I got this book because LibraryThing predicted I would not like it. Earlier this year I ran all the books I had read that month through the LibraryThing “unsuggester” and this and one other book (to be revealed in due course) came up the most often. I can’t reconstruct exactly how, but the UnSuggestions for Blue Like Jazz are not a completely inaccurate match for my library, I suspect because few sf readers are into liberal brands of Christianity. [edited to add: It’s the top UnSuggestion for A Case of Conscience, second for The Go-Between and Farmer in the Sky, and further down for The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat and 32 Stories.]

I, of course, am into liberal brands of Christianity, so I anticipated I would be writing a smug review about how LibraryThing’s UnSuggester Got It Wrong. And intellectually, I found as I had expected that I have a lot in common with Miller’s take on faith (disconnecting it from intellectual arguments) and tolerance of diversity (he is in favour). We are on the same religious and political wavelength.

However, that is not sufficient to enjoy the book. There were two big issues which led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that the LibraryThing UnSuggester Got It Right, even if not necessarily for the right reasons. The first is that the book is not written for people like me; it is written for people who have been deeply involved in US-style evangelical Christianity and have come part of the way out the other side. I found it very striking that there was no discussion of other faiths at all. In my day job I happen to work with several (rather secular) Muslim clients and also a Buddhist political movement. One of the holiest men it has been my pleasure to meet was the late Baba Tahir Emini of the Bektashi shrine in Tetovo. As I try and work out what God has been telling me, I cannot ignore the fact that he appears to have spoken to other people in other ways. Miller’s book is largely set in Portland, Oregon, and entirely features people located at different points along the Christian/non-believer axis; the concept of another dimension (or indeed of the world outside the continental USA) is simply absent.

The other problem, sadly, is that it simply isn’t that well written. It’s not as bad as Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics, which I simply couldn’t finish even though I agreed with most of it, but Miller’s style is peculiarly limp, in places crashingly dull, aspiring perhaps to the style of Vonnegut (or maybe Hemingway) but reaching excellence only in Chapter 18 (on “Love”). If you find yourself in the bookshop considering whether or not to buy the book, read Chapter 18 (where the good bits are the middle couple of pages) and bear in mind that the rest is not as good. Does that help you make your decision?

So, LibraryThing, good call; I hope you update the UnSuggestion engine soon.

Having said all that, people who know Reed College will certainly find a number of points of local interest, so I can recommend it to them!

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Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Last year I wrote up the first half of Series Four of New Who, but never got around to doing the rest. We’ve been re-watching them over the last few days, and now have reached the first of the two Hugo nominees, the other being Turn Left.

(I am a bit baffled that Midnight, which I thought was the best episode on first watching, didn’t make the cut for the Hugos. On the other hand I have now acquired the other three non-Who nominees and intend to watch them in due course, which will be interesting as I have literally never seen any Lost or BSG).

(Also just to note that I enjoyed The Unicorn and the Wasp even more the second time round, and that they were entirely right to drop the framing device of Old Agatha reminiscing. I’m glad I’ve seen it from the DVD extras but even gladder that it wasn’t there to clutter up the broadcast version.)

Unlike a lot of people I wasn’t overwhelmed by Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead. On re-watching, I enjoyed it more, but still feel it is weaker than Moffat’s previous New Who stories. Perhaps I am being unfair, and I guess that expecting another Blink is not reasonable. I must admit that as sf, its concept works very well – the intersecting levels of reality, the time-traveller who meets a lover from his own future; and as drama it is pretty effective, with Alex Kingston and Catherine Tate particularly strong, and the utterly horrible creepiness of the ghosting data chips (“Who turned out the lights?”, etc).

My two problems with it are both to do with River Song’s story. To get the easier one out of the way, her ending is not a particularly happy one; she is still dead, and gets to spend an ersatz afterlife in the computer’s memory with her crew rather than with the man she loves. (If you work or have ever worked in a team with other people, just consider for a moment whether you would prefer to spend eternity with them or with your lover.) The script didn’t quite do justice to the tragedy of River’s story for me.

My other problem is that while the story works as sf and (apart from the above niggle) as drama I’m not so sure it works as Doctor Who. Back in 2006 I enjoyed The Girl in the Fireplace, but rated it below School Reunion, because one of my sources of enjoyment in Who is its dealing with its own mythology, and another is the relationship that we as viewers build up with the regular characters, and TGitF did not deliver much on the second and nothing on the first of these. Now, where at least TGitF had a decent start and closure to the Doctor’s love story, with Renette’s death ending their relationship, SitL/FotD cheats us because we are asked to care very deeply about the Doctor/River dynamic, without getting the payoff of it becoming a regular plot theme. (No televised return to explore River’s past relationship with the Doctor seems likely now, and anyway it would hardly get satisfactory treatment in the time we have left.) So while this episode may well get strong support from Hugo voters who are not regular Who watchers, I was and am surprised by the favour it has found among fans.

So I am really rather agnostic at present as to how I will cast my own Hugo vote in this category. I still have some time to decide, of course.

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Linkspam for 27-5-2009

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Linkspam for 26-5-2009

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May Books 27) Sands of Time, by Justin Richards

All Doctor Who books should be like this. This is pretty much the perfect Fifth Doctor novel. Two of my favourite Big Finish audios are The Reaping, bringing Peter Davison and Janet Fielding together again, and The Bride of Peladon, where the Doctor ends up dealing with the Osirans from Pyramids of Mars. Sands of Time has Five and Tegan battling against the servants of the Osirans, helped mainly by Atkins the butler who comes along in place of Nyssa, who is abducted at an early stage of the book. Many glorious references to PoM, of course, including one squeetastic moment at the end, but also mentions of Black Orchid and City of Death. (And Arc of Infinity, but nobody’s perfect.) There’s also a certain amount of sober reflection on the Doctor’s ability to stay both inside and outside the flow of Time, with his final victory coming as the result of a very neat bit of sideways thinking. (Several times over, which is a bit surprising.)

You don’t even have to pay for the delightful experience of reading this book, cos you can download it for free entirely legally from the BBC website, plus illustrations which weren’t in the original publication. Any Who fan who doesn’t actively hate the Fifth Doctor era will love this. (Not so sure how accessible it would be to the non-fan, but would be interested to hear from anyone who dares try the experiment.)

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Lying eurosceptics

Someone asked me recently about the claims made by "No2EU – Yes to Democracy", a eurosceptic group (supported by the RMT, one of the larger British trade unions) running in the coming European elections.

I had a look at the site, concentrating in particular on the page about EU foreign policy, which is my particular area of interest. I was startled to see that it starts and ends with two outright lies.

The header to the article reads as follows:

The Lisbon Treaty further militarises the EU
One of the articles of the Constitution allows for the death penalty to be introduced “in time of war or of imminent threat of war”.

There is no such text in the Lisbon Treaty or in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The line quoted is from Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which is not an EU document, not a Constitution, commits its signatories to abolish the death penalty except in extraordinary circumstances, and has anyway been in force since 1998 so it is a bit late to start worrying about it now.

The final paragraph of the No2EU article reads as follows (original punctuation preserved):

The Lisbon Treaty does not require EU military actions to be in accordance with the United Nations Charter,

I quote from the text of the Lisbon Treaty, paragraph 49, my emphasis:

The common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign and security policy. It shall provide the Union with an operational capacity drawing on civilian and military assets. The Union may use them on missions outside the Union for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter.

Most of the other statements on the page are debatable, but it’s pretty brave (or something) to put two such blatant untruths top and bottom. A useful reminder that the eurosceptic Left can be just as crazy as the eurosceptic Right.

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May Books 25-26) The Golden Ass, by Apuleius (and Milo Manara’s version)

I knew nothing about this book other than that it was very popular among the dead people whose libraries are catalogued on LibraryThing (including C.S. Lewis, Lawrence Durrell, T. E. Lawrence, William Faulkner, W.B. Yeats, Robert E. Howard, and Danilo Kiš). It turns out to be a very entertaining story of one Lucius, who witnesses (or hears about, or participates in) various fantastic escapades, most of them involving sex, mostly after he has been turned into a donkey, written some time around 160 AD and set in Thessaly (though the author lived in north Africa). The most famous bit is the story of Cupid and Psyche. It is apparently the only full novel to survive from classical times (which makes you think).

It was obviously a source for Bocaccio, who puts several incidents from it straight into the Decameron (and whose personal manuscript copy survives in Florence). It was also (from the list above) obviously popular in the early twentieth century, but skipped over by earlier celebrated bibliophiles – presumably too risqué for eighteenth and nineteenth century tastes.

It is less directly a source for Shakespeare. A lot of people see it as a direct source for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I am not wholly convinced: Bottom is no Lucius to whom things just happen, but a glorious creation in his own right; only his head is transformed, as a result of a spell cast by someone else rather than a magic ointment administered by himself, and most crucially Titania’s ridiculous infatuation with the semi-human Bottom has no real parallel – Lucius as donkey does become a sex object but the circumstances are completely different. Where I do see some direct influence on Shakespeare, it’s the soap operas of fake poisons and sexual deception; Much Ado About Nothing seems to me the most Apuleian of Shakespeare plays, though there are bits of it in most of the middle period of comedies.

It occurred to me that with its multiple shifts of narrative voice and setting, The Golden Ass would make a great graphic novel. I was excited to discover that the Italian artist Milo Manara has done just that. Manara’s version is probably a good way of getting people interested in the classics, but doesn’t really do the original justice; he has stripped the narrative down to the most erotic parts of the original text, in a setting thronged with nubile and improbably nude young women. Rather oddly, he injects a couple of political reflections into Lucius’ thought processes which I did not really find in the original. It’s fun but not the real thing.

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May Books 23) Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, by John Scalzi

This is a compilation of Scalzi’s writing from his blog, essentially a set of rants and thought pieces on various subjects. I only became aware of his blog when I featured on it myself, but his writing is entertaining (more than his fiction, for my taste). Some of his pieces are very memorable – my favourites were his funny pieces on Scooby Doo and cheese (sadly neither is archived online), and his more thoughtful pieces on poverty and Richard Dawkins. (Links provided so that you can decide if you want to read any more, given that I thought these were the best.) I expect this will win the Hugo Award for Best Related Book this year, though as I’ve said my own vote will be going elsewhere.

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May Books 22) EU Accession Dynamics and Conflict Resolution, by Nathalie Tocci

The title of this book sounds rather general, but it has a much more specific subtitle: “Catalysing Peace or Consolidating Partition in Cyprus?” The second of those options, at least from the perspective of late 2004 when the book was published, seems to have been the outcome. I know the author very well, and we have collaborated on Cyprus in the past, so a lot of what is in the book is exactly what I would expect her to write; in summary, it’s a very good, lucid explanation of how it was that the EU manage to screw this one up, to the point that the accession process actually encouraged Greek Cypriots to reject the peace plan in the April 2004 referendum.

Even so, there were a couple of interesting points that hadn’t occurred to me before. The first was Tocci’s analysis of the dysfunctionality of EU institutions. Within the EU, Greece pushed Greek Cypriot interests, and the Commission worked on Greek Cypriot accession (as this was the mandate it had received from member states, at Greek insistence). Nobody in the EU actually had conflict resolution as their goal – certainly nobody who was a significant actor within the system. There was also a lack of information inside the EU about what was really going on in Cyprus, but I feel that even if (as I do) EU officials had had subscriptions to the daily headlines from the Cypriot press, that still wouldn’t have provided the necessary motivation. The EU is good at resolving conflicts among its own members, but much less so along its borderlands.

The second point which jumped out at me is not Tocci’s, but her summary of John Burton’s general theory of conflict: that it arises when certain basic human needs (physical security, justice, recognition of one’s identity) are frustrated. These are non-negotiable; the ways in which they can be satisfied (“satisfiers”, eg local autonomy) however are negotiable. Secession is not an end in itself: the real desires are for security and self-determination. The introductory chapter summarises other writers such as Zartman and Galtung, but this was the point that really struck a chord with me. I’ll need to hunt out Burton’s work, and also any critiques that are out there.

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May Books 21) Fall Out, by Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore

I knew the names of Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore from their excellent essays on Doctor Who, so I hoped very much that this book, subtitled “the Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to The Prisoner“, would be up to the same standards. I’m glad to say it’s the best of the four books I’ve read about the show, with decent analytical essays about each story (which run out of steam slightly around episode 10, but get their second wind by episode 13). They also have good pieces on the origin and sources, including a measured take on the different stories of how it was made garnered from participants, and a decent explanation of Danger Man. The Carrazé/Oswald book looks nicer but this is much more interesting.

And I have to give Telos, the publishers, fair credit; I have no complaints about the production and editing of this volume, unlike some of their other efforts.

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