July Books

Non-fiction 3 (YTD 22)
A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
Shakespeare’s Handwriting: A Study, by Edward Maunde Thompson
Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress, by Jeannette Lucraft

Fiction (non-sf) 9 (YTD 23)
The Complete Stories of Zora Neale Hurston
Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol
Desert, by J.M.G. Le Clézio
Confessions of Zeno, by Italo Svevo
The Last Empress, by Anchee Min
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Spend Game, by Jonathan Gash
Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

SF (non-Who) 4 (YTD 40)
The Jagged Orbit, by John Brunner
Fantastic Voyage, by Isaac Asimov
Kiss of the Butterfly, by James Lyon
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Doctor Who 5 (YTD 37)
Harvest of Time, by Alastair Reynolds
The Also People, by Ben Aaronovitch
Vanishing Point, by Steve Cole
Plague of the Cybermen, by Justin Richards
The Ripple Effect, by Malorie Blackman

Comics 3 (YTD 19)
Misschien, by Kristof Spaey and Marc Legendre
Nooit, by Kristof Spaey and Marc Legendre
Ooit, by Kristof Spaey and Marc Legendre

~6,600 pages (YTD 37,100)
8/24 (YTD 38/141) by women (Woolf, Lucraft, Hurston, Min, Christiex2, Collins, Blackman)
3/24 (YTD 7/141) by PoC (Hurston, Min, Blackman)

Rereads: And Then There Were None– 1 (YTD 7).
Acquired 2011 or before: 6 (YTD 46) – The Also People, Vanishing Point, Confessions of Zeno, Desert, Dead Souls, Katherine Swynford.
Acquired 2012: 3 (YTD 20) – The Pickwick Papers, Fantastic Voyage, The Jagged Orbit
Acquired 2013: 15 (YTD 75) – The Last Empress, Misschien, Nooit, Ooit, The Complete Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, Plague of the Cybermen, A Room of One’s Own, Mockingjay, Harvest of Time, Spend Game, Shakespeare’s Handwriting, Kiss of the Butterfly, And Then There Were None, The Ripple Effect, Murder on the Orient Express

Reading now:
Kraken, by China Mieville
Standing in Another Man’s Grave, by Ian Rankin
The Monsters and the Critics, by J R R Tolkien
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

Coming Next (perhaps):
The History of the Hobbit v. 1: Mr Baggins, by John D. Rateliff
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Shakespeare’s Planet, by Clifford D. Simak
Far North & Other Dark Tales by Sara Maitland
A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland
Streetlethal by Steven Barnes
The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones
Eleanor, Countess of Desmond by Anne Chambers
Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey, by Ian Rankin
The Tunnel at the End of the Light, by Stefan Petrucha
The Adventures Of Luther Arkwright, by Bryan Talbot
The Theology of the Gospel of Mark, by W. R. Telford
The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
The Moment of Eclipse, by Brian Aldiss
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Far Side Of The World, by Patrick O’Brian
The Flood, by Ian Rankin
Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber
Clean, by Katherine Ashenburg
The Wages of Sin, by David A. McIntee
Shakedown, by Terrance Dicks
Eater of Wasps, by Trevor Baxendale
The Dalek Generation, by Nicholas Briggs

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Links I found interesting for 31-07-2013

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July Books 21) The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

‘We want to know, in the first place,’ said Mr. Pickwick, ‘whether you have any reason to be discontented with your present situation.’
‘Afore I answers that ‘ere question, gen’l’m’n,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘I should like to know, in the first place, whether you’re a-goin’ to purwide me with a better?’

I got to page 118 of this and was beginning to despair, to the point that I actually put out a plaintive Tweet/Facebook post wondering if there would be a funny bit soon. But in fact Sam Weller arrives to rescue the book at the end of page 119, thank heavens; although there is a lot of snobbish condescension in Dickens’ portrayal of him, he is also given some penetrating insights and just some generally good lines.

There’s a defence of The Pickwick Papers which would be similar to what apologists for some parts of Old Who might say: reading this as a novel is contrary to the author’s original intent – it was written as a series of humorous installments, when Dickens was 24, and today’s reader’s experience of it is analogous to the puzzled New Who fan who puts on the newly bought DVD of An Unearthly Child for their first experience of Old Who.

Yet at the same time, that’s not really good enough. The book is presented as a novel, and has been since 1837, only a few months after the original publication (unlike An Unearthly Child, broadcast in 1963 and released on video only in 1990), so I think it’s fair to criticise its failings as a novel. Pickwick himself is much less clever than he realises, which is not actually all that funny at first and gets less funny as the book wears on. The plot, such as it is, revolves around some terribly conventional farce tropes which were old-fashioned when Plautus did them in about 200 BC, linking together various set-piece sketches of life in the old days (ie about a decade before the book was actually written).

But what makes the book is a) Weller’s sardonic commentary, and b) some of the set-pieces. The Eatanswill by-election is still a favourite among us political types, but reading it in context I was struck that the author’s emphasis – and the element from the episode that returns later in the book – is actually on the two local newspapers, who feud with each other in a gloriously fannish style which is very recognisable today. The ghost stories which punctuate various chapters are also neatly done for their type (in general better than the average Poe story) with The Bagman’s Tale, in one of the later chapters, surely one of the first examples of a time travel romance in literature?

The Pickwick Papers is a long old slog, however, and I think the casual reader could be excused for seeking out the edited highlights only.

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High Street, Belfast

High Street, Belfast, 1786
Here are men in tricorn hats
And lownecked belles, all full of chat,
Blocking the vista to the docks;

The loosed-out carts
And panniered horse, the dogs
At random.

It's twenty to four
By the public clock. A cloaked rider
Clops off into an entry

Coming perhaps from the Linen Hall
Or Cornmarket
Where (this civic print unfrozen)

In twelve years time
They hanged young MacCracken –
And this man with a crutch

And this tricorned fop
Forever arrested, pre-revolution.
Pen and ink, water tint

Fence and fetch us in
Under bracketed tavern signs,
The edged gloom of arcades.

It's twenty to four
On one of the last afternoons
Of reasonable light.

Smell the tidal Lagan:
Take a last turn with citizens
In the tang of possibility.

Seamus Heaney

Here is the same scene rather more recently in Google Maps, presumably taken on a Sunday when all the shops were closed.

High St, Belfast

(How did Seamus Heaney know it was twenty to four? I can't see any clocks in the earlier picture. Maybe it's poetic licence.)

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July Books 20) Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Poirot was silent a minute. Then he said: “If you will be so good, M. Hardman, assemble everyone here. There are two possible solutions of this case. I want to lay them both before you all.”

I had not actually read this Agatha Christie novel before, though of course I knew whodunnit as it has been widely spoilered in popular culture. There is still a thrill in watching the insanely convoluted plot (both story and conspiracy) come together, and I patted myself on the back for picking up the one clue that Poirot misses (the monogrammed handkerchief). It's also interesting for just how much the backstory draws on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping, which had happened two years before the book's publication; the similarities will not have been lost on the contemporary audience. The resolution does require impressive ability to deceive Poirot, at least initially, on the part of those responsible, and his moral choice at the end is a bit questionable (though not the only time this happens; I shall be keeping count).

But there is extra fascination for today's reader in the locations described. The opening scene of the book is the railway station in Aleppo, where Poirot is joining the train that started in Baghdad (with a break between Kirkuk and Nisibis). It's extraordinary for us now to imagine that route being a relatively unremarkable train journey, the year after Hitler took power in Germany. (Agatha Christie of course knew it well because of her visits to husband's excavations near Nineveh.)

For me the setting came even closer to personal experience when I realised that the actual murder takes place just outside Vinkovci, which I knew in 1998 as a traumatised frontline town recovering painfully from the recent conflict. In December of that year, with wife and small child, I drove past Vinkovci on the former Highway of Brotherhood and Unity through heavy snow, got turned back at the Serbian frontier after navigating the minefields, and finally found a hotel bed in the smashed urban moonscape of Vukovar. So although the area around the likely scene of the crime is actually fairly densely populated, I did feel shudders of sympathy. (See also Saki's short story, "The Name Day", for another creepy story of being stuck in a snowbound train carriage in the future Yugoslavia.)

I think as a mystery novel this is actually better than And Then There Were None

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July Books 19) Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

“Sometime in the near future, this war will be resolved. A new leader will be chosen,” says Boggs.
I roll my eyes. “Boggs, no one thinks I’m going to be the leader.”
“No. They don’t,” he agrees. “But you’ll throw support to someone. Would it be President Coin? Or someone else?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it,” I say.
“If your immediate answer isn’t Coin, then you’re a threat.”

In the concluding volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has to work out not so much how to win the war against the regime of President Snow – that part seems to be working reasonably well, now that the rebellion has actually started – but also how to prevent it from being replaced by something just as bad, or worse. There’s some pretty sane political critique in the trilogy, most especially of media culture and of authoritarianism, and that comes to a peak here when Katniss makes an agonising choice in the final pages (one which, judging from the internets, is actually lost on some readers). There’s a harrowing sequence of her penetrating to the heart of the capitol, in constant danger and losing allies at every step, and of course with unresolved romance issues which she is forced to repress at significant emotional cost. I come away thinking that the first is the best of the three volumes, and one can read it without needing to learn what happens next, but this is a decent conclusion.

There was a remarkable story in the Economist a couple of months back about the adoption of the Hunger Games by the Tea Party. These novels are not great literature, but I think their approach to challenging authority and looking beyond bread and circuses for the reality of your society is sound; and I am not sure that the libertarians have chosen the best author for their own purposes here. While Katniss is (obviously) a fighter for her own freedom and that of others, I sense a pretty important thread of social justice in the books too.

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July Books 18) Spend Game, by Jonathan Gash

The house lies back from the pavement. Beyond the line of dwellings is a row of gardens. Then the dreadful countryside starts, rolling fields, woods, streams, trees. Really horrible, not an antique shop anywhere. I hate the bloody stuff.

I think that this will be my last Lovejoy book for a while. The actual antique mystery bit is particularly well done here: Lovejoy's obsession with relics from the dawn of the railway age turn out to be the basis of a peculiar murder mystery, and there is a thrilling climax as he tries to outwit his enemies trapped at the wrong end of an underground tunnel. But his revolting and sometimes violent misogyny is also on full display too, and it is rather implausible that so many women can simultaneously be pursuing his affections considering how badly he treats them all. I think I'll switch to Agatha Christie for a bit.

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July Books 17) The Ripple Effect, by Malorie Blackman

'For you, time is waves on a beach that you dip a toe into. For me it’s a whole ocean, all the way from coast to coast and from the surface to the ocean floor. I feel time in the very core of my being in a way that you never can.'

The latest of the short Puffin books doing a Doctor a month, and this being July it's the Seventh Doctor and Ace, slipping into a universe where the Daleks inexplicably appear to have become the good guys. Blackman puts the Doctor in an existential moral dilemma with regard to the Daleks rather well (and I notice that the Third Doctor has a similar problem with the Master in Alastair Reynolds' recent novel75 Seventh Doctor novels out there. Still, I think the originality of the plot is commendable in such a short book.

(And as far as I know, Blackman is the first woman of colour to write a Doctor Who story in any medium.)

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July Books 16) Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress, by Jeannette Lucraft

Was she kind, gentle, warm, blessed with a good sense of humour? This we do not know, beyond the conjecture that her personality must have been of merit to hold Gaunt's attention and love for so long.

A fairly short book, with a bit of a sense of PhD thesis pushed into book form, looking at the life and historical treatment of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt's lover and later his wife in the late 14th century. The core facts are interesting enough – her father appears to have been a Flemish mercenary, but she moved comfortably in royal circles and her sister married Geoffrey Chaucer, and her love affair with Gaunt was publicly acknowledged while his second wife was still living. Lucraft dwells on the scandalised treatment of the Gaunt household arrangements by later monastic chroniclers, but carefully dissects them to demonstrate that there may really have been general acceptance of the situation, with the most negative comments written some time afterwards, politically motivated and inaccurate on the facts. Indeed I wish she had gone a bit further and explicitly looked at the John of Gaunt / Katherine Swynford / Isabella of Castile relationship as a stable triad, terminated only by Isabella's death; there are plenty of historical, literary and contemporary examples to draw from. (One favourite of mine is Peter Dickinson's alternate twentieth-century British Royals in King and Joker.)

Lucraft then offers an interpretation of Katherine's personal worldview as having been inspired by St Catherine of Alexandria. Here she makes a very good case for the fact of Katherine's devotion based on the surviving iconography, but falls down a bit in interpreting what this might have meant to her subject: Catherine of Alexandria was, famously, a virgin, and Katherine Swynford, also fairly famously, was not (Swynford was the surname of her first husband, by whom she had had three children before the four she had with John of Gaunt). I think that there must be something in St Catherine's facility in helping her devotees to overcome suffering, and also possibly her personal devotion to learning, but Lucraft disappointingly strays off the specifics into a general discussion of godly women (though I did find the parallels with Margery Kempe interesting).

Anyway, I'm going slow on my own historical project at present, but this was an interesting example of what you can learn about a person, and about history, when they were moderately important in their won right but can only be reconstructed from physical artefacts and from what other people said about them.

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July Books 15) Plague of the Cybermen, by Justin Richards

‘Are we faster than them? Are they following?’ Olga demanded. ‘Where are we going? Are we lost? Will we ever get out of these tunnels alive?’
‘No, probably, not sure, absolutely not, and I hope so.’
What?’
‘Well – you asked.’

This turned out to be an interesting paired reading with Kiss of the Butterfly, in that they are both riffs on the classic vampire mythos in different ways: where James Lyon has gone right back to the roots of the legend, Justin Richards has of course gone for the Cybermen (who as points out are not all that far from the undead anyway). New Who has actually been doing quite a good job of reimagining the Cybermen in their last couple of appearances; this novel has strong links to both the TV story Closing Time and the 8th Doctor audio The Silver Turk, though I felt not quite as good as either. I had expected that this would be an Eleven/Clara novel, but in fact it’s Eleven-on-his-own, with one-off companion Olga. (Pedantic niggle: Olga not such a likely name for a woman in a German-speaking village in Central Europe in the 19th century.) A decent enough effort.

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July Books 14) Kiss of the Butterfly, by James Lyon

His impression of Belgrade was one of dirty decay. He choked on the coal smoke, leaded automobile exhaust, cigarettes and diesel fumes, yet admired the awkward mix of graceful neglected old buildings and concrete communist kitsch. Street-corner black market currency dealers buzzed about like swarming bees as they chanted endlessly the Serbian word for hard currency, ‘devize, devize, devize.’ He was almost run over several times by new black Audis, BMWs and Mercedes with tinted windows, whose drivers braked for no one and rarely observed traffic lights, while the police stood by. And no one smiled.

Here it is at last: the Balkan vampire novel by my former colleague James Lyon, in which he unites a vivid impression of living in Belgrade as an American expat during the opening months of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s with some well developed vampire mythology, drawn from the lore of the region rather than from the twentieth century’s elaborations of Bram Stoker. The plot has sinister forces within the Serbian regime attempting to exploit an occult investment laid down centuries before by the Austro-Hungarian empire, with the central character a young American researcher trying to make sense of it all (and also to work through his feelings for two different Serbian girls). It’s all very smartly done, and entertaining, and clearly leaves enough unresolved threads for a sequel or two.

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Links I found interesting for 27-07-2013

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Links I found interesting for 26-07-2013

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Links I found interesting for 25-07-2013

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Links I found interesting for 24-07-2013

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Wednesday reading

Current:
Spend Game, by Jonathan Gash
The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
Kraken, by China Mieville

Last books finished
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
Fantastic Voyage, by Isaac Asimov
[Doctor Who] Plague of the Cybermen, by Justin Richards
Katherine Swynford, by Jeannette Lucraft
Kiss of the Butterfly, by James Lyon
[Doctor Who] The Ripple Effect, by Malorie Blackman

Next books
Standing in Another Man's Grave, by Ian Rankin
The Monsters and the Critics, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The History of the Hobbit, vol 1: Mr Baggins, by John D. Rateliff

Books acquired in last week:
[Doctor Who] The Ripple Effect, by Malorie Blackman
Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, by Stephen Alford
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

LT unread books tally: 442.

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The next number

in the sequence of pronic numbers which are multiples of increasing powers of ten:

2
20
600
141,000
390,000
87,900,000
11,963,000,000
1 x 2
4 x 5
24 x 25
375 x 376
624 x 625
9.375 x 9.376
109,375 x 109,376

Hope that clears things up.

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A pub evening in Brussels

So there I am, out for drinks with and others; and I realise that the foreign minister of Georgia, and two of her deputy foreign ministers, and their entourage, have all just appeared behind on their way to the bar for a swift one. Only in Brussels, eh?

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Links I found interesting for 23-07-2013

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The Australian K9 series

I have rather lapsed in writing up my rewatch of New Who, but that doesn't mean I have stopped my episode-a-day routine – I finished off the David Tennant era a month ago, and have spent the last four weeks (-ish) watching the least-known Doctor Who spinoff, the series featuring K9 as voiced by John Leeson, and partly written by Bob Baker, broadcast in 2009-10.

Leeson and Baker are I think the only creative links with the rest of Who. The series is set in a totalitarian future London in 2050, where civilisation has degenerated so badly that almost everyone now speaks with an Australian accent, and all buildings built since 2009 have been demolished. Also the climate seems to have become more tropical.

The central cast, apart from Leeson as K9, is the Professor (Robert Moloney), the only Canadian character ever to appear in the Whoniverse (or so I am told), accompanied by Starkey (Keegan Joyce) a bad boy hacker who becomes K9's special friend, Darius (Daniel Webber) who is a young rapscallion with an occasionally talking car, and Jorjie (Philippa Coulthard) as the core goodies.

Jorjie's mother June (Robyn Moore) inconveniently is something senior in the sinister Department which actually runs everything. She is actually the less sinister arm of the Department; she is locked in constant bureaucratic infighting with the evil but not terribly convincing Drake (Connor Van Vuuren) who is replaced partway through the season by the much more convincingly evil Thorne (Jared Robinson).

Who fans will be amused by the way that K9 regenerates in the first episode into a much cuter and smaller robot dog, with the ability to hover, fly, carry out detailed scientific analysis and engage in much more humorous banter than we have ever seen from any of the other versions of K9. All viewers will, I think, be irritatingly earwormed by the signature tune. But the format of the show is very much Monster Of The Week, with little pushing of the format boundaries. Even the first series of Torchwood managed better diversity of tone.

IMHO the best episodes, if you want to sample them, are The Lost Library of Ukko (although it must be pointed out that the library itself is not actually lost) and Taphony and the Time Loop. There is, however, a truly teeth-grindingly bad episode, The Cambridge Spy, which is mostly set on 23 November 1963. (Geddit?)

My recommendation to casual Who fans is that there is no real need to sit through all 26 episodes. The first two, the two in the middle that I have mentioned (plus The Curse of Anubis which has a coupe of amusingly subtle references to Who), and the last three are enough to give you a decent sense not only of what the show is about but also of why we are unlikely to see it again. (Though I see that Philippa Coulthard, who is lovely as K9's young friend Jorjie, was also one of the lead characters in Alien Surf Girls.)

OK, tomorrow it's The Eleventh Hour, again. 

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July Books 13) And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

Sir Thomas Legge said: “Damn it all, Maine, somebody must have killed 'em.”
“That's just our problem, sir.”
“Nothing helpful in the doctor's report?”
“No, sir.”

I'm getting a bit bored with Lovejoy as my bedtime reading and might give Agatha Christie a try, working scientifically through her books in order of popularity until I get tired.

I went through an Agatha Christie phase when I was about 13 and had read And Then There Were None at that time. It's quite far from the normal format of murder mystery: ten people on an isolated island (whose name varies with the edition of the book), all invited because of a fatal incident in their personal past, are bumped off one by one. One of the ten must be the murderer; but who? The solution is just barely credible in the context of the story (requires some impressive good luck from the murderer, and failure to observe some obvious clues from his victims). But it is tautly constructed, and must have been very appealing when first published in late 1939 – no mention of the imminent war, but the previous war's shadow lies across all the characters.

The book is of course notorious for the racism of its original title. It's interesting that the two characters, who become the (largely sympathetic) viewpoint for the climax of the story proper, are also the most obviously racist – one of them has explicitly carried out a racist multiple murder as a colonial officer in Africa, the other is the only person to defend him. But it's also interesting that the murder confesses to inflicting "prolonged mental strain and fear" on "the more cold-blooded offenders" who die last, so the author's message is ambiguous. There's a much less ambigous anti-Semitism directed at a minor character, which is not queried in the same way.

I shall persevere with this project. Murder on the Orient Express is next, and I haven't read it or seen any of the screen adaptations (though, thanks to the spoilers generally abounding in popular culture, I do know whodunnit).

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July Books 12) Fantastic Voyage, by Isaac Asimov

“In principle we can reduce a man to the size of a bacterium, of a virus, of an atom. There is no theoretical limit to the amount of miniaturization. We can shrink an army with all its men and equipment to a size that will fit in a match-box. Ideally, we could then ship that match-box where it is needed and put the army into business after restoring it to full size. You see the significance?”

The story of a mission ministurised and injected into the bloodstream of an ailing scientist to cure him, the protagonists being four men and a woman who, this being an Asimov story, is the centre of some dubious sexual politics. The whole thing is very much in the Cold War context, the miniaturisation technology being fairly blatantly a parallel of nuclear technology.

Although I am aware of the general course of Asimov’s career, I hadn’t previously known some of the details of this book – that it was intended to be the novelisation of the film, but because Asimov finished faster than the studio it was actually published several months before the film was released; that he tweaked various details to make it more plausible than the film script; that the story it was based on was actually set in the nineteenth century. Asimov did his best with some tricky material; basically to keep the film plot going for the full 100 minutes there has to be an unexpected and implausible problem every few chapters which sets our team back. But this is not his greatest work.

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July Books 11) Vanishing Point, by Steve Cole

‘You’ve had your child kidnapped by a madman, have you?’ Etty snapped.
‘Oh, yes,’ the Doctor said quietly. He stared off vacantly into space, the memory clearly tugging at him. ‘And I got her out, too.’
‘Safe?’
‘And superb.’ He grinned.

A pretty solid Eighth Doctor Adventure, with Doctor, Fitz and Anji pitching up on a planet where the powers that be are engaged in dark manipulations of genetics with a religious cover for their activities. Much more detailed and thoughtful than Cole’s base-under-siege stories (which are generally pretty good anyway). Loses a couple of points for inconsistency of setting between blasted heath and robot city. Mercifully free of tedious Doctor amnesia.

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Other people’s Hugo votes

It’s much more difficult to find online discussion of the Hugo nominees now than it was ten years ago. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening – I’m sure it is. But I suspect that the gardens of the internet are regaining their walls, which is a bit sad. Even two years ago (admittedly two days before the voting deadline, rather than ten) I found a lot more to work on.

Anyway, there are a few brave souls who have posted their likely votes on the fiction categories in places where I was able to find them. There were a number of others who had listed the nominees but didn’t give me a clear enough idea of their rankings to include below; please shout if you feel unjustly excluded. If I am able, I may post an update as the voting deadline nears.

In two categories there is a pretty clear front-runner, and in the other two the votes seem more dispersed. This, of course, doesn’t represent anything even approximating to an opinion poll: it is very far from a random sample, and I can entirely believe that there are fans of particular authors who will vote for their works but don’t feel the need to blog about it, or even necessarily to read the competition. But it’s interesting to read the analysis of people who have read the same stories and taken very different things from them.

Best Novel

Rachel Neumeier: 1) 2312, 2) Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, 3) Redshirts, 4) Blackout, 5) Throne Of The Crescent Moon
William Fuller: 1) 2312, =2) Throne Of The Crescent Moon, =2) Redshirts

Me: 1) Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, 2) Throne Of The Crescent Moon, 3) 2312, 4) Blackout, 5) Redshirts
Timo Pietilä: 1) Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, 2) 2312, 3) Redshirts, 4) Blackout, 5) Throne Of The Crescent Moon

Chris Gerrib: 1) Throne Of The Crescent Moon, 2) Blackout, 3) Redshirts, 4) Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, 5) 2312

Steven Halter: 1) Blackout, 2) Throne Of The Crescent Moon, 3) 2312, 4) Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, 5) Redshirts

2312 seems to be the likeliest winner, though not with great enthusiasm. I found a number of posts from people who had not read it yet. No first preferences for Redshirtsvisibility, it is near the bottom of most people’s ballots.

Best Novella:

Me: 1) The Emperor’s Soul, 2) On a Red Station, Drifting, 3) “The Stars Do Not Lie”, 4) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 5) San Diego 2014
Timo Pietilä: 1) The Emperor’s Soul, 2) “The Stars Do Not Lie”, 3) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 4) San Diego 2014, 5) On a Red Station, Drifting
David Steffen: 1) The Emperor’s Soul, 2) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 3) San Diego 2014, 4) “The Stars Do Not Lie”, 5) On a Red Station, Drifting
Peter Enyeart: 1) The Emperor’s Soul, 2) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 3) On a Red Station, Drifting, 4) San Diego 2014, 5) “The Stars Do Not Lie”
Rachel Neumeier: 1) The Emperor’s Soul, 2) San Diego 2014, 3) On a Red Station, Drifting, 4) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 5) “The Stars Do Not Lie”
Alan Heuer: 1) The Emperor’s Soul, 2) San Diego 2014, 3) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 4) On a Red Station, Drifting, 5) “The Stars Do Not Lie”

Steven Halter: 1) San Diego 2014, 2) The Emperor’s Soul, 3) On a Red Station, Drifting, 4) “The Stars Do Not Lie”, 5) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall

Caleb Huitt: 1) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 2) San Diego 2014, 3) The Emperor’s Soul, 4) On a Red Station, Drifting, 5) “The Stars Do Not Lie”

Chris Gerrib: 1) “The Stars Do Not Lie”, 2) On a Red Station, Drifting, 3) The Emperor’s Soul, 4) After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, 5) San Diego 2014

A pretty clear front-runner there. Surprised by the lack of love for On a Red Station, Drifting which is in the lower half of all but two of the above ballots (one being mine).

Best Novelette:

Timo Pietilä: 1) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 2) “Rat-Catcher”, 3) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, 4) “Fade To White”, 5) “In Sea-Salt Tears”
Kristin Hill: 1) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 2) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 3) “Rat-Catcher”, 4) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 5) “Fade to White”
Marshall Ryan Maresca: 1) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 2) “Fade To White”, 3) “Rat-Catcher”, 4) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 5) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”

Me: 1) “Fade to White”, 2) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 3) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 4) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 5) “Rat-Catcher”
Peter Enyeart: 1) “Fade to White”, 2) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 3) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 4) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 5) “Rat-Catcher”
Alan Heuer: 1) “Fade to White”, 2) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 3) “Rat-Catcher”, 4) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 5) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”

Steven Halter: 1) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 2) “Rat-Catcher”, 3) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 4) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 5) “Fade to White”
David Steffen: 1) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 2) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, 3) “Rat-Catcher”, 4) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 5) “Fade to White”

Caleb Huitt: 1) “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”, 2) “Fade to White”, 3) “In Sea-Salt Tears”, 4) “Rat-Catcher”, 5) “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”

A fairly even split between three front-runners here. I note that those who did not give a first preference to “In Sea-Salt Tears” all put it in the lower half of their ballots, whereas both “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” and “Fade to White” managed a second place somewhere.

Best Short Story:

Me: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Timo Pietilä: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Kristin Hill: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Marshall Ryan Maresca: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Alan Heuer: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Peter Enyeart: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Rachel Neumeier: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Caleb Huitt: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Immersion”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Steven Halter: 1) “Mono no Aware”, 2) “Mantis Wives”, 3) “Immersion”

David Steffen: 1) “Immersion”, 2) “Mono no Aware”, 3) “Mantis Wives”
Chance Morrison: 1) “Immersion”, 2) “Mantis Wives”, 3) “Mono no Aware”

A pretty extraordinary consensus – with only three nominees, there are only six possible rankings, but one of those rankings is supported by 70% of those who have posted their views (including me). It rather looks as if Ken Liu will make it two years in a row, a feat last achieved by Michael Swanwick in 1999-2000.

So, there we are. When I did the same exercise two years ago, the blogging consensus did not pick a single one of the eventual four winners.

Needless to say, if any of those linked to feel that I have mischaracterised them (or even worse, mis-identified them) in any way, please get in touch.

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July Books 10) The Last Empress, by Anchee Min

It was the spring of 1868 and rain soaked the soil. Blue winter tulips in my garden began to rot. I was thirty-four years old. My nights were filled with the sound of crickets. The smell of incense fluttered over from the Palace Temple, where the senior concubines lived.

This is a historical novel framed as the autobiography of the Dowager Empress Tzu-hsi (normally transcribed as Cixi these days; she'd have written it 慈禧) from her consolidation of power in 1863 to her death in 1908. I knew almost nothing of Chinese history in this period (or indeed any); I had encountered Tzu-hsi previously in Flashman and the Dragon, where the hero (inevitably) conducts a love affair with her in 1860, before this book is set. I found the historical detail fascinating but, alas, some of the most dramatic incidents turn out to have been invented (or at least elaborated) by the author; I was impressed by the sense of a woman trying to prevent the disintegration of her regime against the twin threats of a series of weak emperors and external pressure from the Europeans and Americans. There are also some lovely descriptive set-pieces. Unfortunately it didn't really grab me emotionally, and towards the end got a bit rushed – I was simply confused by the account of the Boxer Rebellion. Also I had not realised that this is the sequel to Empress Orchid which describes her rise to power; I will look out for it – struggle to get to the top is generally a more interesting read than struggle to stay at the top!

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2013 Hugos: Best Professional Artist

The deadline is drawing nearer, and it’s time to quickly look through the Hugo nominees in a couple of the other categories. I was struck by how many of the Best Professional Artist pictures were sketches just of sultry individuals looking sultry; then the question is, how much circumstantial detail can be fitted in to make this image more memorable than that? It is very much a matter of individual taste and mood. I feel pretty sure of my first and fifth rankings, but the middle three placings are much more difficult because I found them so similar to each other.

1) Vincent Chong grabbed me at once with dynamic use of line and colour; all three of these are just interesting works of art.

2) John Picacio submitted four studies of individual figures; he shades it for me over the others by this rather good fiery disintegration.

3) Chris McGrath again had a sequence of sultry figures, of which I liked this the best.

4) And Dan Dos Santos had a similar set of works, all in much the same style as each other.

5) I feel a little bad at putting Julie Dillon last, especially since her pieces were generally much busier and varied. But I didn’t always feel that they were balanced, and the colouring didn’t grab me. Not that these are bad artworks: here’s a lovely detail from one of them.

There you are: my carefully considered judgement. Or something.

See also: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Related Work | Best Graphic Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

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