Non-fiction: 6 Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, by Charlotte Higgins Roots and Wings: Ten Lessons of Motherhood that Helped Me Create and Run a Company, by Margery Kraus Backstop Land, by Glenn Patterson About Writing, by Gareth L. Powell The Lost Worlds of 2001, by Arthur C. Clarke (in fact this is mostly SF but the non-fiction framing is key) In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings, by Oscar Wilde (mostly non-fiction but includes several fantasy stories)
sf (non-Who): 17 Exhalation, by Ted Chiang Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman Land of Terror, by Edgar Rice Burroughs Demon in Leuven, by Guido Eekhaut “Home is the Hangman”, by Roger Zelazny The Last Days of New Paris, by China Mieville Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, by James Hadley Chase Distaff: A Science Fiction Anthology by Female Authors, eds. Rosie Oliver & Sam Primeau Sirius, by Olaf Stapledon The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, ed. David Gullen The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke The True Queen, by Zen Cho To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
Doctor Who: 2 Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, by Terrance Dicks Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, by Ian Marter
10/32 by women (Higgins, Kraus, Kingsolver, Hartman, Oliver/Primeau, Leckie, Atwood, El-Mohtar, Cho, Chambers)
2/32 by PoC (El-Mohtar, Cho)
5 rereads (the two 2001 books, "Home is the Hangman", Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, Doctor Who and the Ark in Space).
Reading now The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen A Killing Winter, by Tom Callaghan
The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn
Coming soon (perhaps) The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant Arc of the Dream, by A. A. Attanasio A Popular History of Ireland, by Thomas D'Arcy McGee Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt Small Island, by Andrea Levy Babayaga, by Toby Barlow Red Notice, by Bill Browder Excession, by Iain M. Banks Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson Wiske, by Willy Vandersteen Strategic Europe, by Jan Techau Peanuts: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman The Ghost of Lily Painter, by Caitlin Davies
It is one thousand, three hundred and seventeen days since the Brexit referendum. And I am still angry.
There is no economic bonus to weakening links with your strongest trading partners. There is no benefit to sowing dismay and fear about their right to live in their own homes among EU citizens who have been in Britain for years. There is no upside to opting out of the largest conflict resolution project in history, which has reconciled France and Germany after centuries of war, and then provided a foundation for the reintegration of Central and Eastern Europe. It is a historic mistake.
It was always going to happen, of course. The drumbeat of lazy, mendacious journalism pioneered by Boris Johnson had critically undermined the EU’s credibility in Britain. To quote Alastair Campbell’s pithy presentation to the Leveson enquiry,
“Several of our national daily titles – The Sun, The Express, The Star, The Mail, The Telegraph in particular – are broadly anti-European. At various times, readers of these and other newspapers may have read that ’Europe’ or ’Brussels” or ’the EU superstate’ has banned, or is intending to ban kilts, curries, mushy peas, paper rounds, Caerphilly cheese, charity shops, bulldogs, bent sausages and cucumbers, the British Army, lollipop ladies, British loaves, British made lavatories, the passport crest, lorry drivers who wear glasses, and many more. In addition, if the Eurosceptic press is to be believed, Britain is going to be forced to unite as a single country with France, Church schools are being forced to hire atheist teachers, Scotch whisky is being classified as an inflammable liquid, British soldiers must take orders in French, the price of chips is being raised by Brussels, Europe is insisting on one size fits all condoms, new laws are being proposed on how to climb a ladder, it will be a criminal offence to criticise Europe, Number 10 must fly the European flag, and finally, Europe is brainwashing our children with pro-European propaganda!”
I knew in my bones that it was coming when Nigel Farage thrashed Nick Clegg in a televised debate in 2014. We can debate where the crucial moment was. 1992, when John Major negotiated the Maastricht Treaty and opened the internal Conservative warfare? 1997, when Michael Heseltine decided not to run for the Conservative Party leadership and William Hague defeated Kenneth Clarke on an openly anti-EU platform? 2002, when Tony Blair decided not to spend his political capital on fighting and winning the referendum he had once promised on the UK’s membership of the Euro, but instead opted to invade Iraq? 2005, when David Cameron withdrew the Conservatives from the European People’s Party? 2011, when he spectacularly botched a summit? It all points the same way anyway; there was no point at which it looked like the momentum could be reversed.
I want to be clear that I accepted the referendum result, though I disagreed with it. It seems to me that having made the stupid decision to put such a complex issue to a popular vote, you have to accept what the people say. Yes, there were lies (told by both sides, though many more by Leavers), some very dodgy funding and very dubious decisions about the franchise. But the UK needs to face the facts of its own broken political system. The result was as legitimate as most British electoral outcomes are; it was still wrong.
The most shocking revelation of the last three years has been the British government’s utter failure to negotiate smartly with the EU, with the House of Commons, and with itself. (See my thread here.) I had expected a sensible UK government approach, rooted in legal reality rather than chest-beating, which would fairly rapidly assert the need for a jazzed-up EEA-style arrangement (or at least some coherent vision) and sell that both to the EU and to its own people, with a negotiating team that at the very least reported regularly to a cross-party body of some kind and which might have even included opposition politicians. Instead we got negotiation by soundbites, delivered by megaphone, while the EU quietly decided what it wanted and then offered it to the UK on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
A lot of that is of course down to Theresa May personally, whose extraordinary decision to launch the Article 50 process a year before deciding her own government’s position was the single biggest driver of uncertainty. But a lot of blame attaches also to the Brexit hardliners, whose erotic fascination with a No Deal outcome drove the devastating instability of the final twelve months of negotiation (and did not strengthen the UK’s position in the slightest; rather the opposite). I should note also that the government’s secretive approach to the negotiations led to Northern Irish and Scottish officials commenting to me that they were getting better information about the state of play from Dublin than from Whitehall.
The Remainers must also accept blame. There was a moment in September 2019, after the Supreme Court judgement, when a new referendum could have been called by the formation of a government of national unity. But the leadership flaws of Corbyn and Swinson (holding my hand up; I voted for her) meant that this was never tested in the House of Commons. (I attach less blame to the SNP, who are playing a different game and playing it rather well for now.) The Remain side had their chance – had several chances, though this was the best – and blew it. (And I suspect that they would probably have blown a second referendum if they’d managed to call one, so perhaps it’s just as well.)
Johnson loyalists may bluster that now that he is in power, everything will be all right. Bear in mind that after three months of doing the square root of nothing in terms of negotiations, he then generously conceded to Ireland and the EU pretty much the deal that the EU had put on the table in the first place before allowing Theresa May her backstop. The policy outcome was probably the best on offer, given the red lines that the British had drawn for themselves, but the process does not reflect well on Johnson’s character (note particularly, but not only, his treatment of the DUP). His approach was as amateurish as May’s, but both nastier and, in the short term at least, more effective. He was, of course, able to hypnotise most of his party into believing that a substantial retreat was in fact a triumph of negotiation, which is good tradecraft; but that is not the same as statesmanship. We will see how he progresses now that Brexit is moving to the next stage, which will be truculent and difficult (and that’s just the UK deciding its own position).
Has there been an upside? Well, Brexit has been good for business in my line of work (contra those who muttered that I was only opposed to it to protect my supposedly lavish Brussels lifestyle). I’ve been looking back on what I have written about it. A lot of it’s on Twitter. Some of it’s on an APCO microsite. Some of it’s on Facebook. My three most important pieces are probably the open letter to British friends that I wrote shortly before the referendum; the piece I wrote the day after with a colleague; and my op-ed in the Irish Times last July. I stand by most of what I wrote. (I was wrong to suggest that British MEPs would be deliberately marginalised in the European Parliament; though of course, a large number of them marginalised themselves anyway.) My employers’ clients – and potential clients – have been very interested to hear my analysis of what is coming next. I may be a sore loser (OK, I am a sore loser) but I’ve been invited to give talks on Brexit in Brussels, Birmingham, Belfast, Rome, Istanbul, Nashville (Tennessee) and Portland (Oregon). My Belfast lecture from 1 May last year is probably the best summary of what I thought about the whole thing.
I’ve discussed it on various media, including Chinese television (6:45-8:15, 13:34-14:46, 16:45-19:10 and briefly 25:40-25:55).
The extra elections caused by the Brexit debacle gave me more exposure to BBC Northern Ireland viewers.
But that doesn’t really make it all worthwhile.
And it has sharpened my own feeling about the United Kingdom as well. On referendum day I held three passports, one for each of my citizenships – the British and Irish that are my birthright, and the Belgian that I acquired by naturalisation in 2008 (none of the three countries has a problem with multiple citizenships). But my British passport expired in 2017, and I have not renewed it. The Brexiteers have made it clear that my values are not theirs. I am not wanted by the UK, and I am lucky enough to have alternatives. I am sorry for my British friends who do not have the option. I offer you love and sympathy, but it is as a foreigner rather than a fellow-citizen. I choose not to stand up and be counted with your country any more.
Brexiteers, you won. You have made your country a smaller-minded and less important place. For the sake of your mythical sovereignty, you have managed to re-create the old border in Ireland and also produce a new border between Northern Ireland and Britain. You have sniggered at the problems of EU citizens, resident in the UK for years, who struggle to retain the rights that you promised would be untouched by your project. I will be polite and professional with you; I hope to work positively on projects of common interest in the future. But I do not forgive you.
This is the next in sequence of joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Award as I re-read them. It was the cover story for the November 1975 issue of Analog, and won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Novella.
I have to be honest: I love this story with a deep love that is not entirely rational. Zelazny was one of the first authors I discovered when I first started reading sf systematically as a teenager. He won five Hugos and three Nebulas in his abbreviated career; this was the one story that won both.
It's set some decades in the future, though not all that many, vis-a-vis 1975 (so Zelazny quite possibly had roughly 2020 in mind when he wrote it). The protagonist appears in two other Zelazny stories (all three are collected in My Name Is Legion): in a world where everyone has become integrated into the surveillance state, our nameless narrator has managed to stay outside it and also retained the power to invent false identities when needed, which turns out to be occasionally useful for the security service when unusual problems need to be solved. Before I get into the story itself, it's interesting to note that while we today remain worried about state surveillance of our daily lives (and Zelazny here is on a straight line from Nineteen Eighty Four, with the difference that the sheeple have allowed it all to happen democratically), in real life we now worry at least as much about the extent to which corporations have power over our personal data. Several other aspects of the story point to its mid-70s view of technology – most notably that there are video phones but no mobile phones.
One interesting call is that one of the major characters is a US Senator who used to work for the space program – in 1975, John Glenn had just been elected for the first time and it must have seemed like a bit of a novelty; now of course Wikipedia has a whole category for American astronaut-politicians (and let’s not forget early cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Gherman Titov, who both later served in the Russian State Duma).
I have said many times that I hate stories about cute anthromorphic robots. The Hangman of the title is an anthropomorphic robot, but it is very far from cute. Programmed *mumble* years ago to be an autonomous intelligence exploring the outer planets of the Solar System, it went rogue and disappeared. Now it has returned, and its former operators are being murdered one by one. Our hero is brought in to stop it.
There are a lot of good ideas in here, of which the best is the notion of the robot's psychological make-up being heavily influenced, but in the end not completely determined, by the four people who were in charge of its development. (Compare the two-dimensional Susan Calvin of Asimov's robot stories.) Another is that of the three storieas Zelazny wrote about his nameless protagonists, this is the only one where his cover comes close to being blown, and it humanises a character who would otherwise appear a little too superhuman.
It's interesting also to read about a future America that is not New York or California; although the story starts in Baltimore (apart from a couple of framing paragraphs), the main action is the length of the Mississippi – New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis, rural Wisconsin. And of course, as usual, Zelazny's prose conveys the images economically but vividly. Here are the first two paragraphs:
Big fat flakes down the night, silent night, windless night. And I never count them as storms unless there is wind. Not a sigh or whimper, though. Just a cold, steady whiteness, drifting down outside the window, and a silence confirmed by gunfire, driven deeper now that it had ceased. In the main room of the lodge the only sounds were the occasional hiss and sputter of the logs turning to ashes on the grate.
I sat in a chair turned sidewise from the table to face the door. A tool kit rested on the floor to my left. The helmet stood on the table, a lopsided basket of metal, quartz, porcelain, and glass. If I heard the click of a microswitch followed by a humming sound from within it, then a faint light would come on beneath the meshing near to its forward edge and begin to blink rapidly. If these things occurred, there was a very strong possibility that I was going to die.
I must admit now that I am 52 rather than 14 that the story is not without flaws. It depends very much on two coincidences of timing – the availability of our protagonist, who reports in for work only four times a year, just happening to match the return of the Hangman; and also certain other events that appear to be connected with the Hangman’s return but turn out to be independently generated. Zelazny did not always write women well or sympathetically, but there is an interesting woman psychiatrist here (not the only one in his works).
Anyway, re-reading it, I still love this story. Not entirely rationally.
“Home is the Hangman” won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella presented in 1976 (so the 1976 Hugo but 1975 Nebula). The other novella on both final ballots was “The Storms of Windhaven”, by George R. R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle, which was incorporated into their novel Windhaven, but I don't think I have read it. The other Hugo finalists were “ARM”, by Larry Niven, one of the “Long ARM of Gil Hamilton” stories; “The Custodians”, by Richard Cowper, also the title story of a collectionTerry Carr collection. The other losing Nebula finalists were “A Momentary Taste of Being”, by James Tiptree, Jr. which I enjoyed in 2006 in the Star Songs of an Old Primate collection, and “Sunrise West”, by William K. Carlson, which has never been reprinted.
Current The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
Last books finished This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke The Lost Worlds of 2001, by Arthur C. Clarke The True Queen, by Zen Cho To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings, by Oscar Wilde
Next books The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant Arc of the Dream, by A. A. Attanasio
December 2004 was a quieter month, celebrating little U's second birthday and then Christmas at home with just the five of us; I cooked boar as usual, and we watched the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings DVDs during the holiday. No Crisis Group publications, though I was working hard on the big Kosovo report for early 2005, and I did have the thrill of being quoted by the prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milošević (at end here and then again here). I don't even seem to have travelled – cancelled a planned trip to Albania at the last moment owing to pressure of work. (My non-systematic tally, before I started doing the overnights meme properly, was that I had been to twenty different countries in 2004.) My Slovenian intern K left; by peculiar coincidence, within a few months she was working for my present employers, and now works for one of our biggest corporate clients, so we are still in touch. This was also the year of the Boxing Day tsunami.
This is one of the IDW Eleventh Doctor comics, and actually appears to be the only one I have. The Doctor, Amy and Rory wind up in Casablanca during the second world war, and as well as wandering Zelig-like in and out of the background of the famous film, they become caught up in a Silurian plot to take over the world. It's a neat trick to combine both Who lore and a well-known story from outside the Whoniverse, and I felt that Fialkov's narrative worked well. I wasn't always so happy with Smith's art, which inclines a bit to the abstract; I was really tempted to buy this by Mark Buckingham's lovely cover, with its homage to the film's famous poster. You can get it here.
This was my top unread comic. Next on that pile is Peanuts: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz, acquired in Santa Rosa just over a year ago.
Londinium lies between six and eight metres below London. In Naples, you can take tours to ‘Napoli Sotterranea’, underground Naples. You can climb down steps under a church, and be in the Roman streets. Or wander through the Greek city, older still, which was once the new city, the ‘nea polis’. You cannot ‘be’ in Londinium, though you can, if you are persistent, seek it out and glimpse it in the crypt of a church, in the cellar of a shop, in an underground car park, behind a locked door in an office basement. If Londinium is the city’s dark ancestral place, its unconscious, then it is, for the most part, occluded. It is in the City’s nature to prefer the bright, sunlit, angular surface of things, the hard edges of its supermodern architecture with its false promise of prosperity. Why would you want to go down there, to the dank, dark places of the imagination? To the past? The katabasis — the Greeks’ ‘going-down’, the descent to the Underworld, is a dangerous journey. You might not return with what you set out to find.
I am Irish, and was reflecting the other day with a friend born in Iran that the Romans had basically conquered everywhere between our two countries at one time or another. (Roman Armenia of course actually did overlap with present day Iran.) Now of course I live in a former Roman province, with a Gallo-Roman tumulus less than a mile from my home and ten more in the immediate vicinity. I have a big book on Roman remains in Belgium on the unread shelf. But I got seduced by this lovely book by Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins, going around Britain and looking for the Roman stuff, exploring some places that I know (London, Bath, Silchester where I spent a summer afternoon long ago, Wroxeter) and others that I don't know at all (Roman Scotland, Kent, Essex). She has a good eye for character, both among the past figures who she writes about and the personalities of the present day (the patient boyfriend a little-seen but much-felt presence); and also for landscape – like her, I read Hunter Davis' A Walk Along the Wall many years ago, but she has updated it with reflections on the role of tourism in the survival of the otherwise failing rural economy. I came out of this book with a much longer list of things to see in future.
I did wish that the many photographs had had adjacent descriptions, rather than marooning them all on a separate page.
There are some very moving sections. The affair of Arthur's O'on, a Roman temple which gave its name to Stenhousemuir, almost equidistant between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and destroyed in 1743, is a sad commentary on the different valuation of heritage in the past. The story of Tessa Verney, and her better known husband Mortimer Wheeler, is also not a happy one. but I'll leave you with her lovely note on one of the Vindolanda tablets:
You can see some of the Vindolanda tablets in the Roman Britain gallery of the British Museum, and they look deeply unimpressive. They are thin, small, brownish rectangles covered with thin, small, brownish writing. And yet, craning my neck at an uncomfortable angle to try to read the indistinct strokes, I found myself with a catch in my throat when I came face to face, for the first time, with a tablet whose text I knew already:
Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings.
I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.
Sulpicia Lepidina was the wife of Flavius Cerialis, the camp commandant. Claudia Severa was the wife of Brocchus, he of the hunting nets. The letter is written in two hands. The body of the note is in a clear, competent script that has been identified on other tablets – perhaps that of a scribe. The sign-off – warm, personal, urgent – in another hand. It is probably, according to the papyrologists, Severa's own. If it is, it means these are the first words to have survived, from anywhere in the empire, in a Roman woman's own handwriting. 'Sperabo te soror, vale soror, anima mea, ita valeam karissima et have,' reads the Latin. The words 'anima mea karissima', my dearest soul, may have been a bland formula ('lots of love'?), but I none the less felt ambushed by the affection and sweetness in them. The fragment contained atavistic magic that scepticism could not entirely blot out. The years seemed to collapse as I read it, picking out the faint, spidery Latin on the dull wood. I read the words over and over again, and thought of the lost life of the woman who wrote them.
Lisa had al eerder lijken gezien. Een paar keer in het labo van een patholoog, een paar keer bij een verkeersongeval waar ze als aspirant naartoe was gestuurd. Om de smaak en de geur te pakken te krijgen, zeiden de instructeurs. Je eerste dode is het ergst, omdat je een instantverrijzenis verwacht. Daarna ben je genezen van dat soort onzin.
Lisa had seen corpses before. A few times in the pathologist’s lab, a few times in a traffic accident to which she had been sent as a trainee. To get the taste and the smell, the instructors said. Your first dead body is the worst because you expect an instant resurrection. Then you are cured of that kind of nonsense.
Guido Eekhaut is a well-known figure in the Belgian sf scene, who has also written a couple of dozen books, most of them speculative fiction but also some thrillers. This particular book was commissioned a few years back by Belgian railways as part of a set of six novels for commuters. (What a good idea!!!) It's set inand around Leuven, the city where we both live (well, I'm a bit outside it), and concerns an occult police detective (named Solomon) with a newly acquired sidekick (Lisa Noman, who is a woman) investigating the demonic deaths of a couple of senior university officials on top of the university library. There's lots of fun exploration of the city, both parts I know and parts I don't, and some interesting speculation on how magic actually works. I did feel the ending was a little rushed, and wondered if it might have been more satisfactory without the rather severe length restriction imposed by the sponsor. You can get it here.
This was the shortest of the unread books acquired in 2013 on my pile. Next up is Strategic Europe, by Jan Techau. (If I can find it.)
Second frame of third page of Auguria, Tome 1: Ecce signum:
Sound the retreat! We are withdrawing! NOW!
Second frame of third page of Auguria, Tome 2: Gaeso dux:
Second frame of third page of Auguria, Tome 3: Fatum:
I know that voice…
I bought this series of three albums on spec at the Brussels comics festival in September, and started kicking myself as soon as I opened to the title page and realised that I had the French translation of a Dutch original – if I'm going to read in another language, I prefer the original if I can read it at all!!! It is also available in German and Spanish, but not (yet?) in English.
So. It's a three part story published in 2017 and 2018, of which the first volume is revised from a version originally published in 2010. The first volume is set in 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, mainly covering the Batavian Revolt, and the other two in 71, mopping up after the conflict – the second volume mainly in Britannia, the third back in Germania. The art is gorgeous, the historical research is thorough, and the situation of the Batavians as Romanised Germans with ambiguous loyalties is well depicted. I have to say that I got rather lost plot-wise; there are a number of different strands which seemed to me to more or less peter out, and when I turned the last page I was a bit puzzled as to what it all meant. I felt that Nuyten could do with a writing collaborator to complement his artistic and research talents. If you want to give it a try, you can get the French versions here, here and herehere, here and herehere and here (third volume not out yet); and the Spanish (in one volume) here.
This was my top unread non-English language comic. Next on that pile are the two last volumes of the Amoras series.
November 2004 was grimly dominated by the re-election of President Bush, which I honestly had not seen coming. It was an important lesson to me to avoid wishful thinking in my elections analysis in the future. The newly re-elected Bush administration immediately recognised Macedonia as Macedonia, which probably played an important role in the failure of the following week's referendum which would have reversed some elements of the post-conflict local government reform if it had passed. We presciently published a report on South Ossetia, and I had another op-ed on Moldova. My one work trip was to Geneva, where I rather bravely drove there and back; I remember a long and valuable walking conversation with Pat Cox beside the lake, where he gave me some invaluable career advice ("read the paperwork before the meeting"), and also giving Hattie Babbitt a lift to Geneva Airport as I departed. We actually managed two family trips, one ot the Ardennes with the kids, and one with just the two of us to the Hague for a dance performance connected with the royal wedding earlier in the year.
Current This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings, by Oscar Wilde The Idea of Justice, by Amartya Sen
Last books finished The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie About Writing, by Gareth Powell Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, ed. David Gullen The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver Selangor, by Gerry Barton
Next books The Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant Arc of the Dream, by A. A. Attanasio
When I was eight years old, Orma hired me a dragon tutor, a young female called Zeyd. My father had objected strenuously. He despised dragons, despite the fact that he was the Crown's expert on the treaty and had even defended saarantrai in court.
I was moved to get this after hugely enjoying Hartman's Tess of the Road, a finalist for last year's Lodestar Award. Seraphina didn't blow me away quite as firmly, but I still thought it was very good – a YA novel about a girl growing up in a kingdom which has reached an uneasy peace with its dragon neighbours, herself concealing the secret that she is actually half dragon and half human. There's a lot of good stuff here about being othered, body dysmorphia, racism and prejudice, and loyalties split between family and state; and music as a counterpoint to combat. I have the second book of the sequence on my shelves too. You can get it here.
This was my top unread sf book, my top unread book by a woman and my top unread book acquired in 2019. Next on the first of those piles is The First Men In The Moon, by H.G. Wells; next on the other two is Small Island, by Andrea Levy.
Second paragraph of third story ("What's Expected of Us"):
By now you've probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you're reading this. For those who haven't seen one, it's a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.
Ted Chiang has published very few short stories, but they are all good and most of them have won awards. This is a collection of his more recent work. Some of these I remembered very vividly indeed – "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling". I had completely forgotten the title story, but I loved it when it was a Hugo finalist and I loved it again this time. There are two brand new stories here as well, "Omphalos" in which Young Earth cosmology is true, and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom" which opens communications with parallel Many-Worlds universes. All tremendously good stuff, getting my 2020 reading off to a good start. You can get it here.
One artist gets three works on the long-list (unless you count "Unknown", who also has three). Julia Lloyd's three book covers are very diverse from each other, and certainly I would not have guessed that the same had was behind them all. Again, I'm not voting for any of these but I did like them:
After due consideration, I am casting one of my four votes for "Exile's Letter", a graphic story by the Mill and Jones, which is about construction, destruction and renewal. Having an actual graphic story in this category may be pushing the boundaries, but I found it refreshingly different.
In the Heat of the Night won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, and picked up another four: Best Actor (Rod Steiger as police chief Gillespie), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. It lost Best Director to The Graduate, and also lost Best Sound Effects to The Dirty Dozen.
The other Best Picture nominees were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (which of course also starred Sydney Poitier). The only one I have seen (I think) is The Graduate. In IMDB ratings of all 1967 films, In the Heat of the Night ranks 7th on one system and 14th on the other. Six films beat it in both systems: The Jungle Book, The Graduate, Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, Bonnie and Clyde and You Only Live Twice. Apart from The Graduate, I have also seen The Jungle Book and You Only Live Twice. From 1967, I have also seen the first Casino Royale, Half a Sixpence, Who’s Minding the Mint and the Joseph Strick Ulysses. I am a bit mystified by IMDB’s love for The Jungle Book, which I remember as average Disney with implicit racism which surely would not pass muster today. On the other hand, I have good if vague memories of The Graduate and You Only Live Twice, and the first Casino Royale is at least fun. Here’s a trailer for In The Heat of the Night.
This is the first murder mystery to win the Oscar for Best Picture. (Unless you count Hamlet.) The twist is that the murder takes place in a bigoted Southern town, and a black detective from Philadephia who happens to be passing is brought in to solve the crime. I have to say that I did not especially warm to it. I watched it first on Eurostar after three tiring days in London, and then tried it again flying home after a tiring weekend in Glasgow, so my energy was not at its highest, but I must record that it failed to really grab me, and I’m putting it a touch below the halfway mark of my rankings, ahead of On the Waterfront (which also features Rod Steiger) but behind Grand Hotel.
We have one returnee from a previous Oscar-winning film – Rod Steiger, who was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in On The Waterfront, where he pays Marlon Brando’s older brother (despite being younger), and won the Best Actor award this year for his performance as Gillespie, the police chief.
I normally run through the aspects of these films in order, from the things I liked least to the things I liked most. In this case, the basic problem is that a successful detective story requires you to have distinct characters who are interesting enough that you care who is the actual murderer. I did not reach that point here, in either of my two viewings. This is a film about white men with harsh accents yelling at each other, and occasionally being thrown into jail, or taking a break from yelling at each other to yell at the black guy. The plot is fairly simple, but I actually found it difficult to follow. Though I was impressed by the cutting-edge tech used to record the murderer’s evental confession.
There are odd bits of cinematography that jolted me out of willing suspension of disbelief. Here’s one – a murder suspect is attempting to flee across state lines from Mississippi to Arkansas. What’s wrong with this picture? The sun is on the right, and Arkansas is west of Mississippi, so that means the sun is firmly in the north. (Not to mention the fact that the nearest bridges to the real Sparta, Mississippi, are two and a half hours’ drive away, so the police chief is well outside his jurisdiction.)
It’s a film that doesn’t have a lot of space for women either; the three female characters are the Grieving Widow (Lee Grant), the Town Slut (Quentin Dean) and, a little more interesting, the Town Abortionist (Beah Richards), but none of them gets an awful lot to do; the Grieving Widow does at least insist that the black guy should be kept on the case. Of course, that’s still three more speaking female characters than in Lawrence of Arabia (the film, that is; the original book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, has several well-characterised female camels).
On the other hand, you do have to admit that this is the first Oscar-winning film since Gone With the Wind to tackle race, and the first at all to be on the right side of the issue. This is largely (though not entirely – see above re Beah Richards, and there are others as well) carried by the superb performance of Sydney Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs, the Californian detective who is dragged unwillingly into a tacky murder committed by tacky people in a tacky town, and builds an uneasy and unsatisfactory relationship with the police chief.
He has the single best line of the film:
Gillespie: “Virgil”? That’s a funny name for a nigger boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?
Tibbs: They call me MISTER TIBBS!
And he gets another iconic scene (watch to the end), where incidentally the butler is played by Jester Hairston, writer of the Christmas carol “Mary’s Boy Child”:
Even so, I confess I am not totally satisfied with the film’s take on race. Steiger’s Oscar for Best Actor kind of sums it up; the story ends up being about the white guy on a journey to become comfortable with his own racism, rather than about the black guy who has to deal with these bigots day in and day out. I suspect I might find Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, made the same year with the same lead actor, more satisfactory.
I can’t finish without saluting Ray Charles’ title song.
And so we reach another decade, with my rankings of the last ten films (in red below) among the forty Oscar winners so far as follows – not a bad decade, with half of the most recent ten in my top third overall, and seven of them in my top half. But there were some disappointments, and In the Heat of the Night was one of them.
As I usually try and do, I got and read the book that the film was based on, In the Heat of the Night by John Ball. Here’s the second paragraph of the third chapter:
Until Gillespie arrived in town, Sam Wood had been rated a big man, but Gillespie’s towering size automatically demoted Sam Wood to near normal stature. The new chief was only three years his senior—too young, Sam thought, for his job, even in a city as small as Wells. Furthermore Gillespie came from Texas, a state for which Sam felt no fraternal affection. But most of all Sam resented, consciously, Gillespie’s hard, inconsiderate, and demanding manner. Sam arrived at the conclusion that he felt no liking for the Negro [Tibbs], only rich satisfaction in seeing Gillespie apparently confounded. Before he could think any further, Gillespie was looking at him.
As is so often the case, almost everything about the book is better. Our setting is in South Carolina rather than Mississippi; Tibbs is from California, not Philadelphia; the murder victim is not a local industrialist, but an Italian conductor brought in to run a music festival to make the crappy little bigoted town a more popular place, with a supporting cast of sympathisers including an attractive daughter. Also, we get more inside the heads of the protagonists, and it’s the junior police office Sam Wood who Tibbs develops the relationship with, rather than his boss as in the film. Here is a didactic but well-written exchange between them:
Sam thought carefully for a minute before he asked his next question. “Virgil, I’m going to ask you something you aren’t going to like. But I want to know. How did they [the LAPD] happen to take you? No, that isn’t what I mean. I want to ask you point-blank how come a colored man got all those advantages. Now if you want to get mad, go ahead.”
Tibbs countered with a question of his own. “You’ve always lived in the South, haven’t you?”
“I’ve never been further than Atlanta,” Sam acknowledged.
“Then it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”
Sam shook his head. “Some guys down here would kill you for saying a thing like that,” he cautioned.
“You made my point,” Tibbs replied.
It’ss the first of six novels and four short stories, and I think I will keep an eye out for the rest. You can get it here.
Incidentally, this is my first blogpost about a book that I read in 2020. More to come.
I started the month in Portugal, and also went to Washington, New York, Utah, Boston, and London. At work, we published a report on Armenia. (Anne and I celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary, but I was in Portugal on the day itself.) Somewhere in the internets there is video of me giving evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in London on 26 October, but you'll have to settle for the minutes, here and here. Misha Glenny and I emerged from Westminster to see the sad news that John Peel had died. Here I am speaking at Brigham Young University on 13 October. I had more hair then.
6,800 pages (YTD 43,200)
2/21 by women (YTD 31/130)
None by PoC (YTD 2/130)
Best book of the month: the Locus Awards anthology pulls together a lot of superlative short stories, some of which I already knew but almost all of which I really liked. You can get it here. Also Making Sense of the Troubles is dated but thorough; you can get it here. However, you can skip Destiny's Shield, third in an alternative timeline series about Belisarius fighting an alien invasion; the hero never loses a battle or an argument and it gets boring fast. If you want, you can get it here.