My 2021 books in review

I read 296 books in 2021, the fourth highest of the eighteen years that I have been keeping track, and the highest since 2011. I was less distracted by real-life politics and by Hugos this year, and also I admit to reading some very short books which bulked up the numbers

(Full numbers: 266 books in 2020, 234 in 2019, 262 in 2018, 238 in 2017, 212 in 2016, 290 in 2015, 291 in 2014, 237 in 2013, 259 in 2012, 301 in 2011, 278 in 2010, 342 in 2009, 371 in 2008, 236 in 2007, 207 in 2006, 144 in 2005, 149 in 2004)

Page count for the year: 77,200, eighth highest of the eighteen years I have recorded, closer to the middle; as mentioned, there are some very short books in there.

(70,400 pages in 2020, 64,600 in 2019, 71,600 in 2018, 60,500 in 2017; 62,300 in 2016; 80,100 in 2015; 97,100 in 2014; 67,000 in 2013; 77,800 in 2012; 88,200 in 2011; 91,000 in 2010; 100,000 in 2009; 89,400 in 2008; 69,900 in 2007; 61,600 in 2006; 46,400 in 2005; 46,800 in 2004)

Books by non-male writers in 2020: 124/296, 42% – a new record in both absolute numbers and percentages.

(77/266 [29%] in 2020, 88/234 [38%] in 2019, 102/262 [39%] in 2018, 64/238 [27%] in 2017, 65 [31%] in 2016, 86 [30%] in 2015, 81 [28%] in 2014, 71 [30%] in 2013, 65 [25%] in 2012, 65 [22%] in 2011, 65 [23%] in 2010, 68 [20%] in 2009, 49 [13%] in 2008, 53 [22%] in 2007, 34 [16%] in 2006, 30 [21%] in 2005, 33 [22%] in 2004)

Books by PoC in 2020:42/296 (14%) – highest absolute number, second highest percentage.

(25/266 [9%] in 2020, 34/234 [15%], in 2019, 26/262 [10%] in 2018, 17/238 [7%] in 2017, 14 [7%] in 2016, 20 [7%] in 2015, 11 [5%] in 2014, 12 [5%] in 2013, 15 [5%] in 2011, 24 [9%] in 2010, 16 [5%] in 2009, 6 [2%] in 2008, 5 [2%] in 2007, 8 [4%] in 2006, 4 [3%] in 2005, 2 [1%] in 2004)

Most-read author this year: Neil Gaiman, as I worked my way through the Humble Bundle of his books acquired in 2015. This is the second time that he's been my most-read author of the year.

(previous winners: Kieron Gillen in 2020,  Brian K. Vaughan in 2019, Tove Jansson and Marcel Proust in 2018, Colin Brake and Leo in 2017, Christopher Marlowe in 2016, Justin Richards in 2015 and 2014, Agatha Christie in 2013, Jonathan Gash in 2012, Arthur Conan Doyle in 2011, Ian Rankin in 2010, William Shakespeare in 2009 and 2008, Terrance Dicks in 2007, Ian Marter in 2006, Charles Stross in 2005, Neil Gaiman and Catherine Asaro in 2004).

1) Science Fiction and Fantasy (excluding Doctor Who)

2021/ 2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
131 114 77 108 68 80 130 124 65 62 78 73 78 54 75 68 79 76
44% 43% 33% 41% 29% 38% 45% 43% 27% 24% 26% 26% 23% 15% 32% 33% 55% 51%

Highest total ever, fourth highest percentage.

Top SF book of the year:

I was really impressed by Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls, by Matt Ruff, winner of the James Tiptree Jr Award in 2003, a story of multiple personalities and strange things in Seattle; the author went on to write Lovecraft Country, now a TV series. (reviewget it here)

Honourable mentions to:

My votes for the BSFA Award for Best Novel and the Hugo for Best Novel went to, respectively:
(BSFA) Comet Weather, by Liz Williams, a great English fantasy (reviewget it here)
(Hugo) The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin, a great New York fantasy (reviewget it here)

Welcome rereads:

Favourite classics:
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (old reviewget it here)
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury (not yet reviewed; get it here)

BSFA Award winners:
River of Gods, by Ian McDonald (reviewget it here)
The Separation, by Christopher Priest (reviewget it here)

Short fiction which won both Hugo and Nebula:
“Sandkings”, by George R.R. Martin (reviewget it here)
“Stories for Men”, by John Kessel (reviewget it here)

The one you haven't heard of:

A collection by new-ish British writer Priya Sharma, All the Fabulous Beasts – not sure why she is not better known, I think her writing is great (reviewget it here)

The one to avoid:

The 2002 collection of Roger Zelazny's short stories with the title The Last Defender of Camelot – not because of the content, but because of the lazy and incompetent formatting; the 1980 collection of the same name is much better (reviewget it here)

2) Non-fiction

2021/ 2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
53 50 49 50 57 37 47 48 46 53 69 66 88 70 78 70 42 42
18% 19% 21% 19% 24% 17% 16% 16% 19% 20% 23% 24% 26% 19% 33% 34% 29% 28%

Joint eighth highest total of eighteen years, so squarely in the middle; only 15th highest percentage, near the bottom.

Top non-fiction book of the year:

Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins; more on that below.

Honourable mentions to:

Goodbye To All That, by Robert Graves, mainly about the First World War but also about his privileged background and family (reviewget it here)
A Woman in Berlin, a first-person account of the collapse of the Third Reich, particularly the attendant sexual violence (reviewget it here)

The one you haven't heard of:

I was very sorry that The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest, by Paul Kincaid, did not win the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction. I like both author and subject, as writers and also as people, but even without that I think it's a great insight into a great writer. (reviewget it here)

The one to avoid:

Exploding School to Pieces: Growing Up With Pop Culture In the 1970s, by Mick Deal – sloppy and contributes very little to our knowledge of a well-researched era. (reviewget it here)

3) Comics (and picture books)

2021/ 2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
48 45 31 28 29 27 18 19 30 21 27 18 28 6 20 6 8 8
16% 17% 13% 11% 12% 13% 6% 7% 13% 8% 9% 6% 8% 2% 8% 3% 6% 5%

Highest total ever, second highest percentage. I've padded a little (but only a little) by including a photo book and an art book here, but that wouldn't change the rankings.

Top comic of the year:

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, by Rebecca Hall – brilliant and timely historical exploration of slavery in places where we don't often think of it as having happened (reviewget it here)

Honourable mentions:

Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, by Damian Duffy and John Jennings – the only thing I voted for that actually won a Hugo; great treatment of a classic story (reviewget it here)
Le dernier Atlas, tome 1, by Fabien Vehlmann, Gwen de Booneval, Hervé Tranquerelle and Frédéric Blanchard – a great start to a counterfactual series; I felt the other two volumes didn't quite live up to the promise of the first, but still worth reading (reviewget it here)
My Father's Things, by Wendy Aldiss – lovely lovely book about dealing with grief (reviewget it here)

The one you haven't heard of:

Mijn straat: een wereld van verschil, by Ann De Bode – beautiful portrayal of a diverse Antwerp street (reviewget it here)

The one to avoid:

Kaamelott: Het Raadsel Van de Kluis, by Alexandre Astier and Steven Dupre – based on a TV series, does nothing new (reviewhere in Dutch and here in French)

4) Doctor Who

Novels, collections of shorter fiction, etc excluding comics
2021/ 2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
30 18 32 32 51 39 43 59 72 75 80 71 70 179 27 28 5 1
10% 7% 14% 12% 21% 18% 15% 20% 30% 29% 27% 26% 19% 48% 11% 14% 3% 1%
All Who books including comics and non-fiction
2021/ 2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
40 25 43 42 55 42 54 68 81 75 87 78 80 180 49 32 5 1
14% 9% 18% 16% 23% 20% 19% 23% 34% 29% 29% 28% 23% 49% 21% 15% 3% 1%

I ended my sabbatical from DW reading late in the year. 13th highest total, 15th highest percentage for DW fiction; 14th highest total and again 15th highest pecentage for all DW books.

Top Doctor Who book of the year:

(Black Archive) The Massacre, by James Cooray Smith – second and best so far of the Black Archive analyses of past Doctor Who stories. I flagged it up to actor Annette Richardson, and was thrilled to get a brief but happy reply from her. (reviewget it here)

Honourable mentions:

(Comics) Old Friends, by Jody Houser et al – the Doctor meets the Corsair (reviewget it here)
(Novelisation) The Crimson Horror, by Mark Gatiss – adds a lot to the TV story (reviewget it here)
(Official BBC spinoff) Adventures in Lockdown – somewhat random collection but it works (reviewget it here)

The one you haven't heard of:

(Non-BBC spinoff: Lethbridge-Stewart) Night of the Intelligence, by Andy Frankham-Allen – pulls together a lot of threads in this excellent series (reviewget it here)

The one to avoid:

(Non-BBC spinoff: Erimem) Angel of Mercy, by Julianne Todd, Claire Bartlett and Iain McLaughlin – you know what's going to happen really very early in the book (reviewget it here)

5) Non-genre fiction

2021/ 2020/ 2019/ 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014/ 2013/ 2012/ 2011/ 2010/ 2009/ 2008/ 2007/ 2006/ 2005/ 2004/
30 40 45 36 26 28 42 41 44 48 48 50 57 24 33 35 9 19
10% 15% 19% 14% 11% 13% 14% 14% 19% 19% 16% 18% 18% 6% 14% 17% 6% 13%

13th highest total, 16th highest percentage, so pretty far down; not quite sure why that is.

Top non-genre fiction of the year:

Joint honours to two novels which were both the basis for Oscar-winning films:
The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris – chilling story of a mass murderer (reviewget it here) and
Schindler's List, by Thomas Keneally – chilling story of mass murder (reviewget it here)

Honourable mention:

Jack, by Marilynne Robinson – another look at the same events she has told us about before, from a new perspective (reviewget it here)

Welcome reread:

Middlemarch, by George Eliot – one of my favourite books ever (reviewget it here)

The one you haven't heard of:

The Ice Cream Army, by Jessica Gregson – ethnic tensions in WW1 Australia (reviewget it here)

The one to avoid:

Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom – also the basis of an Oscar-winning film; awful film, worse book (reviewget it here)

6) Others: poetry and scripts

I read four works of poetry, of which the best new read was Maria Dahvana Headley's Hugo-winning translation of Beowulf (reviewget it hereWelcome to Night Vale volumes, Mostly Void, Partially Stars (reviewget it here) and Great Glowing Coils of the Universe (reviewget it here)

My Book of the Year

My Top Book of 2021 is Carrying the Fire, by astronaut Michael Collins. Funny, moving, gripping, who would have thought that the best account of the first Moon landing would be written by the guy who wasn't there? (And died aged 90 earlier this year.) Absolutely worth reading, not just for space exploration fans but for anyone interested in the human side of one of the most famous events of the twentieth century. You can get it here.

Previous Books of the Year:

2003 (2 months): The Separation, by Christopher Priest.
2004: The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread).
– Best new read: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin
2005: The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto
2006: Lost Lives: The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland troubles, by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea
2007: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
2008: The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition, by Anne Frank (reread)
– Best new read: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray
2009: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (had seen it on stage previously)
– Best new read: Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, by Marjane Satrapi (first volume just pipped by Samuel Pepys in 2004)
2010: The Bloody Sunday Report, by Lord Savile et al.
2011: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (started in 2009!)
2012: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
2013: A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf
2014: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
2015: collectively, the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, in particular the winner, Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. However I did not actually blog about these, being one of the judges at the time.
– Best book I actually blogged about: The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin
2016: Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot
2017: Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light
2018: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
2019: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
2020: From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull


Since nobody much is on LJ these days, I've outsourced my 2021 book poll to Surveymonkey. How many have you read?

Friday and December reading

Roundup for 2021 coming shortly.

Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver
Calvin, by F. Bruce Gordon
A Radical Romance, by Alison Light

Books finished last week
The 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene (Did not finish)
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Les Mondes d’Aldébaran: L’Encyclopédie Illustrée, by Christophe Quillien
Barbarella vol 1, by Jean-Claude Forest, tr Kelly Sue DeConnick
Northern Ireland a Generation after Good Friday, by Colin Coulter, Niall Gilmartin, Katy Hayward and Peter Shirlow
Jani and the Greater Game, by Eric Brown
Barbarella vol 2: The Wrath of the Minute-Eater, by Jean-Claude Forest, tr Kelly Sue DeConnick
Once & Future Vol. 1: The King is Undead, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvilain
The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World, by Claire Tomalin
Once & Future Vol. 2: Old English, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvilain

December Books

Non-fiction 9 (2021 total 53)
The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend
The Mind Robber, by Andrew Hickey
An Introduction to the Gospel of John, by Raymond E. Brown
Black Orchid, by Ian Millsted
The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett
A Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff, by Neil Gaiman (more non-fiction than sf content)
The 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene (Did not finish)
Northern Ireland a Generation after Good Friday, by Colin Coulter, Niall Gilmartin, Katy Hayward and Peter Shirlow
The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World, by Claire Tomalin

Non-genre 3 (2021 total 30)
Staring At The Sun, by Julian Barnes
Ann Veronica, by H. G. Wells
Lying Under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro

SF 9 (2021 total 131)
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine
The Secret, by Eva Hoffman
"Blood Music", by Greg Bear
Black Oxen, by Elizabeth Knox
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Startide Rising, by David Brin
An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
Jani and the Greater Game, by Eric Brown

Doctor Who 7 (2021 total 30, 40 inc non-fiction and comics)
Doctor Who Annual 2022, by Paul Lang
This Town Will Never Let Us Go, by Lawrence Miles
The Life of Evans, by John Peel
Night of the Intelligence, by Andy Frankham-Allan
The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, by Jacqueline Rayner
Doctor Who – The Mind Robber, by Peter Ling
Doctor Who – Black Orchid, by Terence Dudley

Comics 6 (2021 total 48)
Seven Deadly Sins, by Roz Kaveney, Graham Higgins, Tym Manley, Hunt Emerson, Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot, Dave Gibbons, Lew Stringer, Mark Rodgers, Steve Gibson, Davy Francis, Jeremy Banks, Alan Moore and Mike Matthews
Les Mondes d’Aldébaran: L’Encyclopédie Illustrée, by Christophe Quillien
Barbarella vol 1, by Jean-Claude Forest, tr Kelly Sue DeConnick
Barbarella vol 2: The Wrath of the Minute-Eater, by Jean-Claude Forest, tr Kelly Sue DeConnick
Once & Future Vol. 1: The King is Undead, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvilain
Once & Future Vol. 2: Old English, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamra Bonvilain

9,300 pages (2021 total 77,200)
13/34 (2021 total 124/296) by non-male writers (Hayward, Tomalin, Munro, Martine, Hoffman, Knox, King, Rayner, Kaveney, DeConnick x2, Bonvilain x2)
1/34 (2021 total 42/296) by PoC (King)
7/34 rereads (2021 total 38/296) – "Blood Music", The Lord of the Rings, Startide Rising, The Martian Chronicles, Doctor Who – The Mind Robber, Doctor Who – Black Orchid, Once & Future Vol. 1: The King is Undead

Coming soon (perhaps)
Peter Davison's Book of Alien Planets
El Libro del Mar / The Book of the Sea, by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bolivia (if I can find it)
Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark
Wandering Scholars, by Helen Waddell
“Bloodchild”, by Octavia E. Butler
Why I Write, by George Orwell
Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami
Indigo, by Clemens J. Setz
High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
Scherven, by Erik De Graaf
The War in the Air, by H. G. Wells
The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
Tower, by Nigel Jones
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake
After Atlas, by Emma Newman

My tweets

The Mind Robber, by Andrew Hickey (and Peter Ling)

Working through the Black Archive monographs on Doctor Who, I’ve now reached the seventh, on the 1968 story The Mind Robber, which features the Doctor, Zoe and Jamie transported to a Land of Fiction, and includes one episode where Fraser Hines is briefly replaced by another actor as Jamie because he had caught chickenpox. I like it. When I watched it for the first time in 2007, I wrote:

The Mind Robber features… Oh, let’s get it over with. Zoe. Nobody can keep their hands off her. Certainly not the Doctor (see right). Certainly not Jamie. And the first episode ends like this. In the fourth episode she has a catfight with a caped and masked comic book superhero and wins. No wonder today’s Guardian lists her as one of the top five companions ever! I have to say that I can’t think of a more confident and sexy performance from any of the companions in any other old Who story; Leela, I think, comes closest but that is not very close. (Of course, if we count new Who as well, nobody can hold a candle to John Barrowman.)

And the confidence on her part (and indeed that of the rest of the cast) is remarkable because in fact the story very clearly doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The Doctor and companions are trapped in the Land of Fiction by its Master (not that Master but a different cosmic villain of the same name). We have a forest made of words. We have Jamie transformed into a different actor for an episode, to cover up the fact that Frazer Hines contracted chicken pox. We have clockwork soldiers. We have Rapunzel, we have E. Nesbit’s Five Children, and best of all we have Lemuel Gulliver, played superbly by Bernard Horsfall (and more on him later [in The War Games]). We have glorious moments of Jamie and Zoe becoming fictional, becoming hostile to the Doctor, being nostalgic for their lost homelands (to which of course they will be returned by the end of the season).

But we also have Doctor Who coming close to breaking the fourth wall, not in the overt way of the First Doctor in the Daleks’ Master Plan (or the charming Morgus in The Caves of Androzani), but in terms of exploring Story and what it means to be in one. It’s fascinating and bizarre and I’ll have to re-watch it soon, along with all the DVD extras. And not just because I want to ogle Zoe again.

When I did my rewatch of the whole of Old Who in 2010, I wrote:

The Mind Robber is one of the most extraordinary Who stories ever. The first episode, bolted onto Peter Ling’s script at the last minute by Derrick Sherwin, is full of wonderful moments of inspired lunacy; the only single episode that does a better job of dimension-hopping is Part One of The Space Museum, and it of course is let down by the rest of that story. In The Mind Robber we have the paradoxical idea of fictional characters (the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe) trying to avoid becoming fictional characters (like Gulliver, Rapunzel and Cyrano de Bergerac). Jamie’s temporary change of body – made necessary by circumstances totally outside anyone’s control – adds an extra element of surrealism to the mix. My one quibble is that the ending is a bit abrupt, and we never see what happens to the Master of the Land of Fiction.

Bernard Horsfall is particularly memorable here as Gulliver, aggravating the Doctor in a world of the mind as he was to do again under David Moloney’s direction in The Deadly Assassin. And having griped about the costumes for The Dominators, those for The Mind Robber – produced by the same designer – are superb; particularly Zoe’s catsuit. The moment when she is shot from behind clinging to the console of the destroyed Tardis is a moment when Doctor Who starts to grow up. Or at least enter adolescence.

Coming back to it again – with the production subtitles on the DVD – I still really enjoyed it, for all the reasons set out above. It’s worth noting that it was the first story directed by David Moloney, who also oversaw the production of such classics as The War Games, Genesis of the Daleks, The Deadly Assassin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Patrick Troughton is very good, using force of personality to overcome the low-budget sets. I also must try and get to High Rocks near Tunbridge Wells some time, used both here and in Castrovalva.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation is:

‘I can’t – hold on – much longer – ‘ Zoe gasped.

When I read it in 2008, I wrote:

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

I endorse this assessment. One point to add is that even though Ling did not actually write the first of the five TV episodes, he gives it more page time (38 out of 144 – 26%) than any of the others in the novelisation. Completists will already have it, but if you don’t, you can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Andrew Hickey’s study of the Mind Robber is:

The grafted-on opening by Sherwin means that the serial effectively has two ‘episode 1’s – the story proper does not really start until the second episode – and one could even argue that the plot doesn’t start until near the end of the story. For much of the adventure, this is a picaresque, with the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe exploring an unfamiliar landscape and the characters within it. We will look later at the similarities between the Doctor and Lemuel Gulliver, but in this story the Doctor has become part of Gulliver’s genre – he, like Gulliver, is our representative in a strange place, discovering the rules along with us, and this is enough to carry the narrative without having to have a plot per se.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Hickey’s writing online over the years, though he has more recently shifted to podcasting and Patreon, neither of which is really my thing, so I was looking forward to this. My expectations were not completely fulfilled. I felt it leant a bit too heavily on the traditional fannish resources for Doctor Who – articles from DWM, Howe et al, Cornell et al – and not enough on other sources. In particular I missed any reference to Who’s Next, by Derrick Sherwin, the writer of the first episode of The Mind Robber and script editor for the whole; his autobiography was published in time for the 50th anniversary rush in 2013, and Hickey’s Black Archive study almost three years later. So there was a lot more telling me what I already knew than telling me new stuff.

Having said that, for those less familiar with Whovian reference books, it’s a workmanlike summary of the state of play, comprehensibly structured and decently written. The chapters cover:

  • the production of the story, and its roots in Platonic philosophy and Alice in Wonderlandthe questions of authorship and the nature of fiction;
  • a very short chapter on the story’s structure;
  • a defence of Season Six and brief bio notes on the main cast and crew;
  • a much longer survey of the characters in the Land of Fiction, especially Gulliver, the Karkus and the Master himself;
  • another very short chapter on why The Mind Robber is different to the First Doctor story The Celestial Toymakerwhat a shame it is that a subtle story full of nuance is chiefly remembered for one male gaze scene [I plead guilty];
  • why the Doctor is not from the Land of Fiction (only one reference is given for this argument);
  • other appearances of the Land of Fiction in the Whoniverse, unsurprisingly omitting The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, published five years later.

You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56)

July 2014 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I've been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I've found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I spent most of July 2014 at work in Brussels, escaping at the end to Northern Ireland. Before that, F and I went to a re-enactment of the Battle of Wavre:

And the following weekend we had a day-trip to Huy.

Little U was overwhelmed with fangirlishness on seeing the Teletubby ride at the Eurotunnel terminal.

I read 30 books that month. Those that were potential Clarke Award finalists did not get written up at the time.

Non-fiction 6 (YTD 35)
Napoleon Bonaparte for Little Historians, by Bou Bounoider
Ireland Under The Tudors vol 2, by Richard Bagwell
How Languages are Learned, by Patsy M. Lightbown and Nina Spada
Ireland Under The Tudors vol 3, by Richard Bagwell
The Essence of Christianity, by Ludwig Feuerbach (not fnished)
The Journals of Lewis and Clark, 1804-1806 (not finished)

image image

Fiction (non-sf) 4 (YTD 22)
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver
Crash, by J.G. Ballard
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell
Billionaire Boy, by David Walliams
image image image adfdcd61d1c881e5936416a5951426a41493441

SF (non-Who) 14 (YTD 67)
Binary (®Evolution), by Stephanie Saulter
Andromeda’s Fall, by William C Dietz
The Moon King, by Neil Williamson
Beowulf, tr. J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien
The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey
My Real Children, by Jo Walton
Plastic Jesus, by Wayne Simmons
The Echo, by James Smythe
Rogue Queen, by L. Sprague de Camp
The Bees, by Laline Paull
334, by Thomas M Disch
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
Glaze, by Kim Curran
Shovel Ready, by Adam Stermbergh
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Doctor Who 4 (YTD 38)
Millennium Shock, by Justin Richards
So Vile a Sin, by Ben Aaronovitch and Kate Orman
The Book of the Still, by Paul Ebbs
Doctor Who: Cybermen Monster File, by Gavin Collinson and Joe Lidster
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Comics 2 (YTD 13)
De Sterrensteen, by "Willy Vandersteen" [Peter Van Gucht & Luc Morjaeu]
Brussel in Beeldekes: Manneken Pis en andere sjarels, ed. Marc Verhaegen
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~8,800 pages (YTD ~49,900)
8/30 (YTD 44/175) by women (Lightbown/Spada, Kingsolver, O'Farrell, Saulter, Walton, Paull, Curran, Orman)
3/30 (YTD 13/175) by PoC (Bounoider, Saulter, Paull)

The best of these was The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which you can get here, followed by Crash, which you can get here, and The Girl With All The Gifts, which you can get here. The worst was Napoleon Bonaparte for Little Historians, by Bou Bounoider, acquired at the Wavre re-enactment; readers will be startled to learn that "Wellington was an Englishman, a bit like Paddington Bear." In fact, as we all know, Wellington was born in Ireland, and Paddington Bear was a) from Peru and b) a bear. You can get it here.

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“Blood Music”, by Greg Bear; Startide Rising, by David Brin

My slow progress through the list of works which won both Hugo and Nebula has now taken me to the awards made in 1984 for work of 1983; two winners, both of which are based on humanity's manipulation of genetics, but in very different ways.

The second paragraph of the third section of “Blood Music” is:

He explained with his characteristic circumlocutions. Listening was like trying to get to the meat of a newspaper article through a forest of sidebars and graphic embellishments.

When I first read “Blood Music” in 2001, I wrote:

A friend of mine gave me a copy of the novel length expansion of “Blood Music” shortly after it was published. I did not really get it; the plot seemed to me to start from a very good idea and degenerate into silliness. The original short story, however, is excellent. Brian Aldiss once characterised good sf as not so much “What if…” as “My God! What if…” [actually it was Philip K. Dick] and “Blood Music” is firmly in that category.

The story begins with a classic first sentence, “There is a principle in nature I don't think anyone has pointed out before”. This leads to a couple of paragraphs of exposition of the prinicple that micro-organisms die all the time and it doesn't really matter, followed by the couplet: “That, at least, is the principle. I believe Vergil Ulam was the first to violate it.”

Our narrator, Edward Milligan, unexpectedly meets up with his old friend Vergil Ulam, who has succeeded in developing intelligence in bacteria by unlocking the information processing potential of RNA molecules. He transfers the intelligent RNA into his own white blood cells, and now finds his body being changed from within as the cells take over. Terrified by the potential dangers of Vergil's research, Edward kills his friend.

But it is too late. Vergil has managed to infect Edward with his geneticially modified microbiota, and Edward in turn infects his wife Gail. The story ends as the couple find their bodies completely under the control of the newly evolved intelligences, now expanding to take over the rest of the human world, and come to terms with a new mode of existence.

Basically Bear has taken two very ancient sf themes, the story of man's creation gone wrong (which dates back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and the evolutionary transcendence theme which is surprisingly common among hard sf writers, most notably in Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End“Gene Hive” aka “Journey to the Interior”) to create a cracking piece of narrative.

And the quality of the narrative is one reason I can't easily place “Blood Music” in the nanotechnology or cyberpunk traditions which it is said to have kicked off. Other novels I have read dealing with the theme of nanotechnology include Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, Ian McDonald's Necroville, Kathleen Anne Goonan's Crescent City Rhapsody. Not one of these books has a really satisfying ending, and since I know that McDonald and Stephenson at least can write real endings in their other books, it would seem that the gosh-wow factor of describing nanotechnology has a tendency to distract the author from conventional narrative guidelines – my fading memory of the novel version of Blood Music bears this out.

Orson Scott Card, in his introduction to the story in Future on Ice, argues that Bear cannot be a cyberpunk writer because he is an “all-around nice guy”, the implication being that real “cyberpunk” authors are not. Card's antipathy to cyberpunk is well known, so this is not a hugely convincing argument. However, given that no less than Bruce Sterling hailed “Blood Music” as one of the founding texts of cyberpunk, there is a case to answer. It seems to me though that true cyberpunk, when it deals with biological engineering, is exhilarated by the possibilities of a new technology under human control. The moral of “Blood Music” is ambiguous; in so far as Vergil Ulam's invention of molecular nanotechnology leads to new possibilities of human existence, this can only come about through an awful compromise with what used to be the components of our own bodies.

“Blood Music” gets it just right in terms of characterisation, pace and an ending which raises even further questions about the universe. Strongly recommended.

Coming back to it twenty years later, I was again impressed with the pace and skill of the story-telling, and the convincing portrait of what is frankly a rather stereotypical character in Vergil Ulam. I am a bit less annoyed by cyberpunk and stories about nanotechnology now – I must have got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. I got it in the Future on Ice anthology, which you can get hereThe Big Book of Science Fiction: The Ultimate Collection, which you can get here.

There was an unusual congruence between the Hugo and Nebula Best Novelette ballots that year; all five Hugo finalists were also Nebula finalists. Apart from “Blood Music”, these were “Black Air”, by Kim Stanley Robinson; “The Monkey Treatment”, by George R. R. Martin; “The Sidon in the Mirror”, by Connie Willis; and “Slow Birds”, Ian Watson. There were two additional Nebula finalists, “Blind Shemmy”, by Jack Dann and “Cicada Queen”, by Bruce Sterling. I don't recall having read any of them.

The third chapter of Startide Rising starts with two prose paragraphs each followed by reported speech in the language of dolphins. The second of each of these are:

The operator’s report confirmed the discovery made by neutrino sensor moments before. It was a litany of bad news, related in trance-verse.

* They scream and lust—
       To win and capture …

I was hugely disappointed with The Uplift War, Brin's other Hugo-winning novel in the Uplift Saga, when I revisited it a few years back. I'm really glad to say that Startide Rising maintained its magic for me. It's set in the early days of humanity's encounters with a much older galactic civilisation, where the pecking order between alien races who have genetically developed their client species is a matter of intense conflict. Humans have contributed to this by “uplifting” dolphins and chimpanzees, and the first dolphin-crewed starship, having made a epochal discovery, is hiding on an obscure planet from stronger alien forces pursuing its secret. The humans and dolphins are all very well characterised, and the planetary environment and other alien races well depicted (though the aliens sometimes slip just a little into stereotype). And Brin has put a lot of work into thinking about how intelligent creatures with completely different mindsets might work together, especially with the undertones of slavery and colonialism which are the foundation of the series. I really enjoyed revisiting it. Where “Blood Music” is “My God! What if…”, Startide Rising is sensawunda reflecting contemporary debates (as always). You can get it here.

In contrast to the Novelette ballots, Startide Rising was one of only two novels that year to be a finalist for both Hugo and Nebula; the other was Tea with the Black Dragon, by R.A. MacAvoy. The other Hugo finalists were Millennium, by John Varley; Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey; and The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov. The other Nebula finalists were Against Infinity, by Gregory Benford; The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe; Lyonesse, by Jack Vance; and The Void Captain's Tale, by Norman Spinrad. The only one that I am sure I have read is the Wolfe, though I guess I must have read the Asimov at some point as well.

The Hugo for Best Novella that year went to “Cascade Point”, by Timothy Zahn, and the Nebula to “Hardfought”, by Greg Bear. The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Speech Sounds”, by Octavia E. Butler, and the Nebula to “The Peacemaker”, by Gardner Dozois. I'm sure I've read “Speech Sounds”, and not sure about the rest. The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Return of the Jedi.

Next in this sequence is a rare triplet: “Bloodchild”, by Octavia E. Butler; “Press Enter ◾️”, by John Varley; and Neuromancer, by William Gibson, which all won Hugo and Nebula awards in 1985 for work published in 1984.

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Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Seascapes #4; Daughter of the Gods; Ninth Doctor v2

I’m going to try and be more diligent about writing up my Big Finish listening next year, but for today here are notes on five audios that I have recently enjoyed.

First up is Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Seascapes #4, by Tim Foley, a Torchwood story recommended by my friend M. This is just glorious. It starts off like any other self-help tape narrated by Michael Palin, and gradually gets darker and darker, all told in the second person, present tense. It’s really audacious to put one of England’s best known actors on for an hour and eighteen minutes of dramatic monologue about Torchwood, but it works really well. My first story by Foley, not my last as we shall see shortly. You can get it here.

Next, Daughter of the Gods, by David K. Barnes is a multi-Doctor story with a twist: the First Doctor and Second Doctor meet in a slightly divergent timeline from the canonical Daleks’ Master Plan. Peter Purves plays both Steven and the First Doctor, Frazer Hines plays both Jamie and the Second Doctor, Wendy Padbury plays Zoe and Ajjaz Awad plays Katarina. The dynamic between the first two Doctors is written as very fractious indeed, and of course that makes total sense – they have no particular reason to like each other, and the First Doctor is wracked with guilt when he learns from the Second what will happen to Katarina – played by Ajjaz Awad, who must be forty years younger than the other three TARDIS crew actors, and successfully takes on a role that was written out of the show two decades before she was born. Again, Barnes was a new writer to me but I’ll look out for more of his work. You can get this here.

I was not as impressed as I had hoped to be by the first trilogy of Big Finish audios starring Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor, released in May. The second trilogy, Respond to All Calls, came out in the summer and I am glad to say that I enjoyed it a lot more. There’s no common character between the three adventures apart from the Ninth Doctor himself, and although Eccleston loves a regular sparring partner, he’s also pretty good at one-off angst and heroism which is what we get here. Apparently there was a plan at one point to make these three the first Ninth Doctor box set from Big Finish; I think it would have been a good idea, but no doubt internal production constraints played a role. You can get the box set here.

The first of these, Girl, Deconstructed, is by Lisa McMullin whose other work I’ve enjoyed – I don’t seem to have written it up here, but she did a glorious Leela / River Song mash-up for the Eighth of March anthology, and also a couple of the recent Gallifrey: Time War series. This one is set entirely in Scotland in 2004, and apart from Christopher Eccleston, all the voices are Scottish, which makes a nice change. Fifteen year old Marnie has disappeared, and she’s not the only one; Mirren Mack as the missing teenager and Pearl Abbleby as the detective looking into it who uncovers some of her own secrets are very good, especially the detective / Doctor interactions with Eccsleston.

The second, Fright Motif, is by Tim Foley who also wrote Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Seascapes #4. It has a pretty damn good guest cast – Gemma Whelan, of Game of Thrones and Upstart Crow (a Big Finish regular of course); Adrian Schiller, who played the evil Uncle in the Hugo-winning Neil Gaiman Eleventh Doctor story The Doctor’s Wife; and Damien Lynch, another Big Finish regular who I’d most recently heard playing Leela’s love interest. I thought it was tremendous, and several times went back to listen to good bits again. Despite the fact that there are only four characters, they are all excellent, the Paris 1948 atmosphere is convincingly portrayed, and the alien menace convincingly threatening. Tim Foley is now on my must-buy list of authors.

The final part of the trilogy, Planet of the End, is set in the future rather than the past or near-present; the writer, Timothy X Atack, is I think new to me. I mostly listened to it navigating around an unfamiliar supermarket while shopping on Christmas Eve, so sympathised with the Doctor’s confusion as he tried to work out what was going on. Having landed on a mausoleum world, he is taken prisoner by the local AI on the instructions of the mysterious Incorporation, who then make extreme demands of him. I thought the plot maybe slightly over-reached, but it’s more than made up for by Margaret Clunie as the computer that gradually develops a soul through her interactions with Eccleston’s Doctor. I was also more than a little thrilled that half of the mysterious Incorporation is played by Jan Francis, who I loveed as Yvette in the first series of Secret Army, but in fact she isn’t given as much to do as I’d have liked. Still, it hangs together well enough.

Here’s a trailer for all three of the stories, which has nice visuals and music but not much content.

I have the third Ninth Doctor box set downloaded and ready.

The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, by Jacqueline Rayner

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Theodore hadn't stopped apologising for the last mile, even though Yaz kept insisting it was unnecessary – if she hadn't clicked that, outside the protection of the TARDIS, any update to K9's systems would overwrite the data, then he couldn't possibly be expected to know.

A good Thirteenth Doctor novel by the experienced Jac Rayner, taking us into the world of L. Frank Baum's Oz, and neatly written on the assumption that the average reader will be half-familiar with the 1939 film but maybe less so with the 1900 book. K9 and a guest character, Theodore, bulk out the usual TARDIS crew (although two had been written out months before this book was published last summer); Graham, Yaz and Ryan recapitulate Dorothy's companions on her journey; and we get a bonus invocation of The Mind Robber (which I'll come to shortly). The worst thing about the book (and it is not all that bad) is that the question of Who Is Behind It All is thoroughly spoilered by the cover. Otherwise it's decently in the traditions of both Who and Oz, and I think would be accessible to fans of the one who don't know the other.

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650 days of plague

So. Enjoying a much quieter Christmas than usual; though still a bit more convivial than last year; for Christmas dinner, we invited our old Cambridge friend P, who normally goes to his family in England but couldn’t this year. I’m happily blogging away (most of my book blog posts are written at least a week in advance). We took B out for a walk today despite the rain (which she doesn’t mind) and did not quite succeed in getting everyone to look at the camera at the same time.

The girls have now had their booster shots, Anne and I have appointments for next week and F has his for later in January. Anecdotally, my sense is that a lot more people are feeling knocked out by the booster than by the first jabs, but it’s still better than the alternative. Next time I write one of these posts, I’ll have had mine.

Despite the rise in Omicron cases, the Belgian numbers in general were improving rapidly before the holiday weekend, with infections falling by 36% weekly. We’ll see what happen tomorrow when (presumably) we’ll get new numbers. One thing that already strike me is that in the current peak ICU cases, rather than deaths, are now the lagging indicator, peaking last and falling more slowly; which possibly points to cases being in general less severe now than in previous waves. (Of course maybe most of the really vulnerable are already dead…

One consequence of the tangibly less severe situation is that in Belgium at least, the social contract of respecting decrees on social distancing is starting to break down; today’s front page headline in De Standaard is that theatres and cinemas are refusing to close as ordered. Being De Standaard, it also says that this is more of a Francophone probem. For now.) We’ll see how that develops.

Otherwise I am reasonably hopeful of getting back to the office more than one day a week some time in January. Stay well, everyone!

2022 according to science fiction, in novels and films

For the last couple of years, I did a roundup of science fiction set in the year to come – 2020 and 2021. This year I have not looked into TV shows or games, but can present you with three novels and six films, all made in 2002 or before, all set more or less in 2022. I’m going through them in reverse chronological order, frankly because that way we save the best until last. (Most of them are not very good, but I also confess that I watched several of the films when sick with COVID, so my concentration may not have been intense.) How similar to fiction will the reality of 2022 turn out to be?

Novel 1

The Secret, Eva Hoffmann (2002)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Palm Beach Airport was a two-dimensional, oversharp image against the baby-blue sky. The cab crawled through wall-to-wall traffic, endless cars shimmering metallically in the soupy heat, the air in the taxi feeling as if it were made of cold metal itself. From this close up, the white Hispanic haciendas, the strip of what passed for downtown, the blockbuster hotels rising straight up against the sea, looked like that old Pop Art stuff, flatter than anything I’d remembered from Plato’s Caves. Maybe it was the air which thinned everything down.

What’s it about? Eighteen-year-old protagonist, born in 2004, discovers that she is her mother’s clone, and spends the rest of the book working through her resentment against her family and others.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? Not unless cloning technology had got a lot further in 2004 than we realised.

Is it any good? Moody young women are often quite a good read, and this isn’t awful. You can get it here. 6/10.

Film 1:

देहम / Deham (The Body) (2001)

What’s it about? A young man in Mumbai accepts an offer from an evil company to harvest his body organs in return for making his wife and family rich. His wife is very upset about this and then (spoiler) the company makes a mistake and takes away her deadbeat brother to be chopped up instead of her husband.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? Commercial organ harvesting is a genuine ethical issue, and lurid accounts of people losing parts of their bodies against their will abound. Still difficult to imagine that this could be legitimised – and, crucially, if it were, the harvesters would make damn sure they had the right person.

Is it any good? Frankly, no. Based on a play, it’s very stagey, and the only good bit is Kitu Gidwani as Jaya. Panned by Indian critics, though it won a prize in Sweden. 4/10. The whole thing is on Youtube, so you can judge for yourself. (NB not to be confused with a different 2001 film also called The Body.)

Novel 2:

Black Oxen, by Elizabeth Knox (2001)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Carlin was out in front, setting an example I think, examining every foot of ground with a kind of comic intensity. I saw him straighten to unkink his back. He put a hand up to shade his eyes. Then he grew still.

What’s it about? Our protagonist, another moody young woman, has started therapy, in the year 2022, to process the peculiarities of her childhood and young adulthood; she seems to have moved between parallel worlds, her father has a strange relationship with reality, and her late husband was a notorious torturer in a fictional South American country where ancient magics are sill practiced.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? Therapy will certainly exist in 2022. Most of the books is set before that, and the specifics of magic as part of a structure of governance have probably not been realised anywhere. (But what do we know?)

Is it any good? I found it frankly difficult to follow, but I see from elsewhere online that it has its diehard fans. You can get it here. 6/10.

Film 2:

No Escape / Escape from Absolom / Absolom 2022 (1994)

What’s it about? Our protagonist, played by Ray Liotta, is sentenced to life in an isolated but large penal colony, where hundreds of convicts, all men and almost all white, fight it out for dominance. Based on the 1987 novel The Penal Colony, by Richard Herley, which is set on an island off Cornwall.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? Penal policies everywhere oscillate between repressive and redemptive. But it seems improbable that next year, or any time soon, large swathes of fertile land would be handed over to convicts for them to do whatever they want.

Is it any good? It looks brilliant – the north Australian setting is utilised to the max. But the plot is plure cliche and the cast not exactly diverse (no woman is seen at any point through the film), and my sensitive soul found the violence icky. 5/10.

Film 3:

Time Runner (1993)

What’s it about? Mark Hamill, unsuccessfully attempting to fight off an alien invasion of Earth in 2022, somehow gets sent thirty years back in time to try and prevent it all from happening. He tangles with a corrupt politician who is destined to become the collaborationist president of the world, and ends up assisting at his own birth.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? Actually most of the film is set in 1992, apart from the very beginning and occasional flashforwards. As of now, we don’t (yet) have a President of Earth; as for the alien invasion, we will have to wait and see.

Is it any good? Frankly, no. The best bit is Brion James (who I confess I only knew as Kowalski in Blade Runner) as the sinister politician Neila – see what that spells backwards? Subtle, eh? Hamill, whose character is 30, was of course already 41. There are some half-decent action scenes but the plot makes little sense even on its own terms. 4/10. As of present writing you can watch it all here:

Film 4:

Alien Intruder (also 1993)

What’s it about? More convicts in the futre, but this time a small group pulled together to salvage a lost space ship (whose original crew were in fact killed by one of them). But as they travel, they each get to pass the time with an individually designed erotic fantasy starring Tracy Scroggins (previously of Dynasty, later of Babylon 5Is 2022 really going to be like that? No. We have no deep salvage space missions staffed by prisoners. Though Tracy Scroggins surely still features in the erotic fantasies of some people of my sort of age.

Is it any good? Yet again, not really. The effects are poor, the characters almost interchangeable and the plot once again barely coherent even in its own terms. 4/10. I can’t give you the full thing this time, but here is a trailer where even the narrator sounds bored.

Film 5:

The Dark Side of the Moon (1990)

What’s it about? A maintenance ship ends up on the dark side of the Moon, where it encounters an abandoned NASA space shuttle, the legacy of the Bermuda Triangle, and the Devil himself.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? We don’t as far as I know have any nuclear-armed satellites, let alone maintenance ships for them where the computer is in the shape of an attractive woman (Camilla More). So, probably not.

Is it any good? I actually can’t remember. This was the first of the films that I watched when down with COVID, and my brain was too fogged to really make sense of it, which is probably not the film-makers’ fault. I vaguely recall that Joe Tunkel seemed to be quite good. Not giving it a mark as it wouldn’t be fair. Here’s the trailer.

Novel 3:

Staring at the Sun, by Julian Barnes (1986)

Second paragraph of third section:

Jean had often wondered what it would be like to grow old. When she had been in her fifties, and still feeling in her thirties, she heard a talk on the radio by a gerontologist. ‘Put cotton wool in your ears,’ he had said, ‘and pebbles in your shoes. Pull on rubber gloves. Smear Vaseline over your glasses, and there you have it: instant ageing.’

What’s it about? In fact only the third (and shortest) section of three is set in 2022, and even that is a bit ambiguous in that the year is never identified, though 2022 seems a reasonable best fit given what we are told earlier in the book. The first section deals with the childhood of the protagonist in the 1940s; the second with her unsuccessful marriage to the village policeman; and the third flashes back to her life in between from the perspective of celebrating her hundredth birthday.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? I do hope that 100-year-old ladies will still be able to have joyrides in aeroplanes next year, if they want to. And Barnes’ supercomputer with all the answers is not far off Google, though it requires a lot more human maintenance than the search algorithms that we have come to know and love in real life.

Is it any good? Unambiguously, yes. I don’t think it is as deep and meaningful as Julian Barnes fans evidently do, but it’s an interesting reflection on what the life of an Englishwoman born in 1942 might look like. 7/10. You can get it here.

Film 6:

Soylent Green (1973)

I watched this last year, for the first time.

What’s it about? It’s a story of New York in the year 2022, where overpopulation and climate change are making the city into an awful place to live. Our protagonist is tasked with investigating the murder of a wealthy industrialist, and discovers much worse things about his society – with a rather similar theme to that of Deham, discussed above.

Is 2022 really going to be like that? The future claustrophobic and overcrowded New York is realised in great and convincing detail. Thirty-eight years on, New York may not have grown to 40 million, but it’s still a city whose infrastructure cannot cope with a pandemic. And climate change turns out to be a real problem in real life. However people are not being euthanised and turned into food, at least not in New York, as far as we know.

Is it any good? I told you I was saving the best to the end. This is a true classic. The euthanasia scene, and Charlton Heston’s final scramble through the Soylent factory to discover its awful secret, are also very well done. And the scenes of police brutally clearing up a riot hit very close to home. 8/10. Here’s a trailer:

So, wishing you a less apocalyptic 2022 than we saw in fiction. And a less apocalyptic 2022 than 2021, let alone 2020.

The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Martial law was restricted to the south-west to keep Dublin open for those, in Sturgis’s jokey phrase, ‘as wants to negotiate’. A few on both sides seem to have wanted to. They found a new intermediary in Patrick Joseph Clune, Archbishop of Perth, a man with some experience of the war — he had been visiting his native Clare at the time of the Rineen ambush and the reprisals that followed it, and his nephew had died in Dublin Castle along with McKee and Clancy on Bloody Sunday. Shortly after the Kilmichael ambush he was enlisted by Joe Devlin as a go-between, and spent most of December moving between Dublin and London, talking to Griffith in prison, and twice to the Prime Minister, who certified him as ‘thoroughly loyal’.1 He seems to have drafted agreed truce terms that included immunity for Collins and Mulcahy.
1 Lloyd George to Greenwood, 2 Dec. 1920. HLRO F/19/1/28.

This won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize in 2015, along with a special mention for The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but I found it a tremendous book – a blow-by-blow account of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, looking pretty neutrally at both British and Irish records and coming to some interesting conclusions. Like most Irish people with any interest in history, I was pretty familiar with the outlines of the story, which meant that the new details were very interesting indeed.

Going through it chronologically, there are points of interest in each of the long chapters. The British conceded a massive chunk of territory, quite literally, by evacuating small rural police stations as soon as the first trouble began in mid to late 1919. The Royal Irish Constabulary were more of a paramilitary law enforcement agency than a community police force, but even so, the withdrawal to fortified regional redoubts basically conceded the monopoly on the use of force to the IRA. This created space for the Dáil court system to start functioning a year or so later – the received history is that the Dáil courts were a turning point, but in fact they could not have functioned if the police had been, well, policing.

In 1920 the IRA worked out how to fight a guerilla war more or les from first principles, with ultimately the introduction of the Black and Tans, whose violence shifted what remained of neutral opinion in most of Ireland towards separatism, culminating in Bloody Sunday. This is one part of the generally believed narrative that Townshend confirms. But even so there are some interesting wrinkles. The strike of railway workers – or rather, their refusal to carry British troops on the trains – was a serious blow to British mobility. And also, British policy itself was completely unhinged, with no medium to long term goals – if they were to win the war, what next? But they were too poorly organised to have a chance of winning, with lines of control at the top (and indeed middle) deeply obscure.

1921 saw the two sides edging towards a truce, and eventually to the December 1921 Treaty. What’s especially interesting is that both sides were motivated to keep talking because neither believed that they could win if war resumed. My father always used to say that most armies are so badly organised that it’s just as well that they only ever have to fight other armies. The turning point here, and I guess I knew this but had not seen it that way before, was the election in May. The British commanders had assured the government at the start of the year that they would have crushed dissent by late spring, so the elections were duly scheduled and organised. But in fact Sinn Féin won every seat outside the new territory of Northern Ireland (er, and Trinity college Dublin), unopposed. As Asquith put it (not quoted by Townshend, but I’ve seen it elsewhere), London gave Ulster a parliament that it did not particularly want, and the rest of Ireland a parliament which it would not have.

1922-23 saw the difficulties in implementing the Treaty eventually spill over into the Civil War. I had not realised quite how quickly the Republican side basically lost the war by default. They assumed that as in 1919-21, the latent support of the people as a whole would sustain them and delegitimise the Collins / Griffith / Cosgrave government; and they controlled large parts of the south and west of the country, and two small but strategic parts of Dublin. But the Free Staters picked off the areas of Republican strength one by one, and retaliated brutally to individual attacks by executing prisoners; meanwhile the Legion of the Rearguard waited for a popular revolt that never happened.

It’s a great chronology. I do have two complaints. There is not enough about Northern Ireland / Ulster; Townshend remarks several times that Collins rather ignored it, but is somewhat guilty of doing the same himself. On the other hand, there is too much about political ideology. The understanding of the Republic mattered a lot to many of the participants, De Valera in particular, and not only him. but I find it personally rather difficult to grasp.

Anyway, this is a great book which anyone interested in that place and time should read. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is a Bolivian government production, El Libro del Mar (fortunately in English), if I can find it. If I can’t, the next will be Neither Unionist nor Nationalist: the 10th (Irish) Division in the Great War, by Stephen Sandford.

Ewart-Biggs Prize winners: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness | From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull | Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell | The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend | The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce | The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

O Christmas Tree

The modest tree has its own story. We got it in 1997 in Banja Luka, our first Christmas abroad, when B was a baby and F and U unthought of. It has cheered us every year since.

Here’s the post I wrote about that Christmas a few years ago.

My tweets

The Life of Evans, John Peel; Night of the Intelligence, Andy Frankham-Allan

A novella and a novel in the ongoing spinoff series about the Brigadier from Doctor Who.

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Life of Evans, by John Peel:

For the first time in his life, Evans actually felt as though he was fitting in.

Private Evans is a minor character in the TV story The Web of Fear, and here he gets a nice backstory all his own, with of course an alien incursion, firmly rooted in the life of a Welsh army recruit.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Night of the Intelligence, by Andy Frankham-Allan:

Simon would have none of it. ‘It’s just noise,’ he said.

Frankham-Allan is the brains behind this series, and here he pulls together a lot of the threads from the previous novels, along with several different versions of the Brigadier’s long-lost brother from different timelines, and of course the Great Intelligence and Professor Travers. It would have been easy to lose the run of a complex story like this, but I felt that Frankham-Allan pulled it off.

Friday reading

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

Last books finished
An Introduction to the Gospel of John, by Raymond E. Brown
Doctor Who – Black Orchid, by Terence Dudley
Black Orchid, by Ian Millsted
Seven Deadly Sins, by Roz Kaveney, Graham Higgins, Tym Manley, Hunt Emerson, Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot, Dave Gibbons, Lew Stringer, Mark Rodgers, Steve Gibson, Davy Francis, Jeremy Banks, Alan Moore and Mike Matthews
An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King
The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To, by Dean Burnett
A Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff, by Neil Gaiman

Next books
The 48 Laws Of Power, by Robert Greene
Jani and the Greater Game, by Eric Brown

My tweets

Top tweets of the year

5) Highest engagement rate:

4) Most URL clicks:

3) Most impressions and most retweets:

2) Most replies and likes:

1) Most engagements, user profile clicks, detail expands, media views and media engagements:

June 2014 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I've been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I've found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I started the month relaxing at my sister's in Burgundy:

…had a Worldcon planning trip to London midmonth:

…and ended with another visit to Barcelona.

The World Cup was on, which absorbed some of my attention as well.

I read 31 books that month. A couple of them didn't get written up at the time as they were potential Clarke nominees. (Indeed, one of them ultimately was a Clarke nominee.)

Non-fiction 7 (YTD 29)
Queers Dig Time Lords: A Celebration of Doctor Who by the LGBTQ Fans Who Love It, eds Sigrid Ellis & Michael Damian Thomas
Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary eds. Justin Landon & Jared Shurin
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, by Jeff VanderMeer, with Jeremy Zerfoss
Green Living for Dummies, by Michael Grosvenor and Liz Barclay
The Global(ized) Game: A Geopolitical Guide to the 2014 World Cup, by Harrison Stark
Legacy: A story of racism and the Northern Ireland Troubles, by Jayne Olorunda
Ireland Under The Tudors vol 1, by Richard Bagwell

Fiction (non-sf) 2 (YTD 18)
Het Verdriet van België, by Hugo Claus
Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

SF (non-Who) 11 (YTD 53)
Orbitsville by Bob Shaw
The Blazing-World, by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle
Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone
A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar
Nexus, by Ramez Naam
The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu
Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler
The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein, by Theodore Roszak
The Goblin of Tara, by Oisin McGann
Age of Shiva, by James Lovegrove
Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

Doctor Who 5 (YTD 34)
A Device of Death, by Christopher Bulis
Damaged Goods, by Russell T. Davis
Trading Futures, by Lance Parkin
The Bog Warrior, by Cecelia Ahern
The Shakespeare Notebooks, by James Goss, Jonathan Morris, Julian Richards, Justin Richards and Matthew Sweet

Comics 6 (YTD 11)
The Meathouse Man, by George R.R. Martin and Raya Golden
Saga, Volume 2, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Bételgeuse v. 1: La Planète, by Leo
[Suske en Wiske] De Apenkermis, by Willy Vandersteen
[Suske en Wiske] Amoris van Amoras, by "Willy Vandersteen" [Paul Gheerts]
[Suske en Wiske] Het Aruba-dossier, by "Willy Vandersteen" [Paul Geerts]

~7,800 pages (YTD ~41,100)
9/31 (YTD 38/145) by women (Ellis, Barclay, Olorunda, Cavendish, Samatar, Butler, Ahern, Golden, Staples)
6/31 (YTD 10/145) by PoC (Olorunda, Samatar, Naam, Chu, Butler, Staples)

The best of these were Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson, which you can get here, and Legacy: A story of racism and the Northern Ireland Troubles, by Jayne Olorunda, which you can get here. Underwhelmed by Age of Shiva, by James Lovegrove, which you can get hereMeathouse Man, by George R. R. Martin and Raya Golden, which you can get hereThe Bog Warrior, by Cecelia Ahern, which you can get here.

My tweets

This Town Will Never Let Us Go, by Lawrence Miles

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Hard to say what they were watching for. Signs of life? A later-than-last-minute reprieve?

Having got all enthusiastic about the first of the Faction Paradox books last month, I'm afraid this left me rather cold. It's a story of a few key characters interacting with a town that is being devastated by a mysterious war. I didn't care about them and I was annoyed not to know more about what was going on. And there is a chapter written almost entirely in anagrams, which is really self-indulgent.

Many people like it more than I did, or find it more interesting.

Next up is Of The City Of The Saved… by Philip Purser-Hallard. I'll give it a fair try. (I'm in slightly sunk cost territory here, having bought a number of the Faction Paradox books in my first wave of enthusiasm.)

Doctor Who Annual 2022, by Paul Lang

The third section is a comic, of which these are the second and third frames:

I am not one of those who delights to dump on the Whittaker/Chibnall era of Doctor Who. I think it’s had its highs and lows, and while its highs have not perhaps been as high as other eras of the show, its lows have not been epochal either (though we came close with Kerblam!). I was astonished when a Twitter poll of all 296 Who episodes up to mid-2019 put The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos at the very bottom, behind even The Twin Dilemma; I can only guess that a lot of those voting had not seen The Twin Dilemma, and to be honest, I can’t really make a strong argument as to why they should.

However. Chibnall has clearly not been as assiduous in pushing spinoff material in the way that Stephen Moffat was, let alone Russell T. Davies, and the first two Thirteenth Doctor annuals, for 2019 and 2020, are the least impressive by far in a series of publications going back to 1965. The 2021 Annual was a step up; I’m afraid that this year’s is half a step back down again. Marketed to kids who have been watching this year’s six episodes, it goes into detail about last year’s ten, just like the last annual did, with the addition of this year’s New Year special and a little bit of retrospective acknowledgement of the show’s history. There is no original fiction; the comic strip is a print adaptation of part of the (excellent) 2020 Daleks! animated webcast which you can watch here. There are some pointless games and quizzes. When you compare it to the 2006 annual, the first produced by Russell T. Davies, there really is no competition. You can get it here, but if I was looking for Christmas presents for a young Whovian I might look elsewhere.

My tweets

The 2021 overnights meme: a new low

Places where I spent the night away from home this year. As usual, places where I spent more than one non-consecutive night are marked with an asterisk.

Durbuy (added in revision)
The Hague

Six seven places in four five countries, the lowest since I started tallying in 2005. (Last year I had been to five places in three countries before 1 March, and fitted in another three in three more countries before the end of the year.)

This is only the second calendar year since 2001 that I have not been to the USA.

Let’s hope for better in 2022. (I said something similar a year ago.)

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

Lying Under the Apple Tree, by Alice Munro

Second paragraph of third story ("My Mother's Dream"):

My mother looked out from a big arched window such as you find in a mansion or an old-fashioned public building. She looked down on lawns and shrubs, hedges, flower gardens, trees, all covered by snow that lay in heaps and cushions, not levelled or disturbed by wind. The white of it did not hurt your eyes as it does in sunlight. The white was the white of snow under a clear sky just before dawn. Everything was still; it was like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" except that the stars had gone out.

This is a sort of "Best of" collection, with three stories each from five of Alice Munro's short story collections. I had read three of these (The Love of a Good Woman, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage and Too Much Happiness) but not the other two (Runaway and The View from Castle Rock, which includes the title story). They're all really good, as per usual, though I remembered very little about the nine out of fifteen that I know I had already read. (More than five years ago.) I think I'd recommend getting the individual collections separately, rather than the "Greatest Hits". Still, you can get it here.

This was the non-genre fiction work that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is A Darker Shade, edited by Jean-Henri Holmberg, but I'm going to leave it until I've finished all the sf and non-fiction books I acquired in 2015.