April and weekly books

Books read this week:
The Past is Red, by Cat Valente
The Man from Yesterday, by Nick Walters
Stucwerk, Hechtwerk van het Kasteel te Boxmeer, by W.V.J. Freling
Doctor Who: Full Circle, by Andrew Smith
The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac MacCarthy
Full Circle, by John Toon
A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow

Non-fiction read in April 8 (YTD 29)
Human Nature / Family of Blood, by Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard
Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Colour, by Joy Sanchez-Taylor
The Ultimate Foe, by James Cooray Smith
Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T Barbini
Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters
Stucwerk, Hechtwerk van het Kasteel te Boxmeer, by W.V.J. Freling
The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe
Full Circle, by John Toon

Non-genre fiction read in April 1 (YTD 8)
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac MacCarthy

SF (non-Who) read in April: 11 (YTD 32)
Blackthorn Winter, by Liz Williams
Purgatory Mount, by Adam Roberts
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell
L’Esprit de L’Escalier, by Catherynne M. Valente
Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher
Elder Race, by Adian Tchaikovsky
Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers
The Past is Red, by Cat Valente
A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow
Air Hive Monkey Valley of Lights

Doctor Who books read in April: 4 (YTD 15)
Doctor Who: The Ultimate Foe, by Pip and Jane Baker
Legends of Camelot, by Jacqueline Rayner
The Man from Yesterday, by Nick Walters
Doctor Who: Full Circle, by Andrew Smith

5200 pages (YTD 21,800); average length 208 pages; median length 181 (Human Nature)
median LT ownership 43 (Hergé, Son of Tintin)
11/25 (YTD 32/88) by non-male writers (Jacobs, Sanchez-Taylor, Williams, Valente, McGuire, Chambers, Valente, Harrow, J Baker, Rayner)
2/25 (YTD 12/88) by non-white writers (Sanchez-Taylor, Cooray Smith)

332 books currently tagged “unread”, 1 more than last month

Reading now:
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
Tower, by Nigel Jones
Thursday’s Child, by Maralyn Rittenour

Coming soon (perhaps)
Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
Demons and Dreams: Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Vol 1, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Mort, by Terry Pratchett
Make Your Brain Work: How to Maximize Your Efficiency, Productivity and Effectiveness, by Amy Brann
A Modern Utopia, by H. G. Wells
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century, by Amia Srinivasan
Half Life, by Shelley Jackson
The Happier Dead, by Ivo Stourton
Queen of the States, by Josephine Saxton
Monstress, Volume 6: The Vow, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
No-Nonsense Guide to Global Media, by Peter Steven
Junker: een Pruisische blues, by Simon Spruyt
Killdozer!, by Theodore Sturgeon
Intimacy, by Jean Paul Sartre
Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen
The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter
Roger Zelazny’s Chaos and Amber, by John Betancourt
The Harp and the Blade, by John Myers Myers
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross

March 2016 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.

As I have previously written, on 22 March 2016, I set off from home in slightly unusual circumstances; I had the car, because Anne was in England at a family funeral, and my phone was broken so I had no means of contacting the outside world as I drove to work. When I hit the tunnel that takes you from the motorway to Avenue de Cortenbergh at around 0850, there was the usual tailback of traffic. But it became clear by the time I reached Rond Point Schuman that this was no ordinary traffic jam; the Rue de la Loi, along which I would normally coast before taking a left turn down Rue de la Science for my office (the green line on my map), was being closed off by serious-looking police, and I ended up taking a very serpentine route indeed, not helped by thinking at one point that it might be smart to double back and then changing my mind. 

I finally made it to the office at 1022, those last two kilometres having taken me 90 minutes to drive, to find most of my colleagues gathered ashen-faced in the lobby, greeting me tearfully – I was the only person who was unaccounted for, due to my phone being out of order, and people were beginning to assume the worst. They informed me that two terrorist attacks, one at the airport and one at the Maalbeek/Maelbeek metro station (marked with the four-pointed star on my map), had killed dozens of people – 35 including the perpetrators themselves, as it later turned out. I had massive numbers of messages on every possible platform asking if I was all right, which is very reassuring.


The horror hit very close to home. I had flown out of Brussels airport in the morning five times already in 2016, and was originally due to do so again three days later to go to Eastercon in Manchester (in fact my plans had already changed and I took the Eurostar to London for work and travelled on up by train). Anne’s flight home from England was cancelled and she returned by Eurostar the next day. Maelbeek metro station is in the heart of the EU quarter, and I go past it most days and through it several times a month; a former colleague was actually on the train that was bombed, but fortunately escaped without injury.

Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? I had two trips to London, one of which extended into Eastercon in Manchester (Mancunicon) and also went to Barcelona. I don’t seem to have taken any photographs on any of those trips. We finished the month at my sister’s in Burgundy.

For the centenary of the Easter Rising, I wrote a blog post for the Dublin Worldcon bid, though later had to make corrections.

What with one thing and another, it was a slow month for reading.

Non-fiction: 2 (YTD 11)
The Road to Ruin: how Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin destroyed their own government, by Niki Savva
Easter 1916: selected archive pieces from the New Statesman

SF (non-Who): 8 (YTD 25)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Mother of Eden, by Chris Beckett
Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Wings of Sorrow and of Bone, by Beth Cato
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Glorious Angels, by Justina Robson – did not finish
Naamah’s Curse, by Jacqueline Carey

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 11)
Short Trips: Steel Skies, ed. John Binns
Illegal Alien by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry
Another Girl, Another Planet by Martin Day and Len Beech

Comics: 2 (YTD 7)
The Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman et al
House Party, by Rachael Smith

3,500 pages (YTD 14,100 pages)
5/12 (YTD 30/59) by women (Savva, Cato, Okorafor, Carey, Smith)
1/12 (YTD 7/59) by PoC (Okorafor)

Top book of course was Carroll’s Alice, which you can get here, followed by Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford, which you can get here, and The Sandman: Overture, which you can get here.

I bounced off both Glorious Angels, which you can get here, and Another Girl, Another Planet, which you can get here.

Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I hadn’t been able to sleep. This was a long shot, I knew, but it had occurred to me that this was one possible way that Mercado might make his way out of the city in darkness without either getting his hands on a car or showing his battered face at a ticket window.

I knew Steve Gallagher for his Doctor Who stories (Warriors Gate and Terminus), and wandered past him several times at Gallifrey One in February; I had no idea about his other work, but hugely enjoyed this, his best known book, a ale of an Arizona cop chasing a body-hopping entity and trying to rescue the daughter of the woman he loves. A lengthy appendix to the Telos edition explains Gallagher’s attempts to bring the story to the screen, and it also includes his first published short story, “Nightmare, With Angel”, on which the novel was very very loosely based. This was an unexpected pleasure. You can get it here.

Valley of Lights was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2015. Next on that pile is Queen of the States, by Josephine Saxton.

Valley of Lights

Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Victoria Valois considered him. Lack of sleep had left his eyes rheumy and red; the pores on his nose were enlarged; and his hair and beard were uncombed and wild, as if he’d dragged himself backwards through a hedge—an impression reinforced by the myriad nicks and scratches on his cheeks and forehead.

Sequel to Ack-Ack-Macaque, which I enjoyed and which shared the 2013 BSFA Award with Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. More steampunky adventures with the cigar-chomping combat pilot who happens to be a monkey, in a richly imagined and humorous alternate world. Fun but not deep. You can get it here.

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Happier Dead, by Ivo Stourton.

Hive Monkey

Happy birthday to me (and A.E. van Vogt)

As the years go by it gets ever easier to identify people who share my birthday, down to the year as well as the day. The SF Encyclopedia has one such list, including Jon Pertwee’s father Roland (1885), Morris West (1916), Luděk Pešek (1919), Donald Cotton (1928), Charles Platt (1945), and the dubious case of William Shakespeare, who was baptised on this day in 1564 but traditionally born three days earlier.

However, this year I’m going to concentrate on the Canadian/American writer A.E. van Vogt. I’m not a massive fan of his writing (see a redemptive reading here), and he certainly backed the wrong horse by getting involved with dianetics, but the interesting thing for my purposes is that he was born on 26 April 1912, and was therefore celebrating his 55th birthday on the day that I was born on another continent; today I celebrate my own 55th birthday.

He did not write all that much after 1950, though he successfully recycled and expanded previous short fiction for book-length publication up until quite late in the day. He also got a $50,000 out of court settlement from the producers of Alien, after alleging that they had ripped off his plots.

I’ve been trying to find a photograph of him from around 1967, and have not quite succeeded – most surviving pictures come either from earlier, when he was more active, or later, when more people were taking photographs that ended up digitised. I think he’s in his late 50s, and not looking bad, in this one, which seemed the closest to the right date.

He lived to 2000, and if I make it to 2055 I’ll be happy. (I hope.) You can get his books here.

Air, by Geoff Ryman

First book review I have posted here for ages – usually I write them for the week ahead at the weekend, and at Eastercon there was no chance of that happening. Also because it’s Hugo season and I’m involved this year, I can’t do reviews for the finalists. Anyway, here we go with Air by Geoff Ryman, who I bumped into several times last weekend.

Second paragraph of third chapter:

She lay in bed, pushing herself into the corner of the alcove, her face stretched into a grin she could not explain. Her family and friends were crowded around. They knew Mae had been inside Mrs Tung when she died.

When I first read it in 2006, I wrote:

I mostly agree with Gene Melzack and Iain Emsley, and where I differ from them I agree with Claude Lalumière [link dead]. This is a great novel about the changes wrought in our world by the new communications technology. Unlike most such novels, rather than fixating on the technology itself, Ryman looks at what the coming information revolution will mean to ordinary people living ordinary lives. Unlike any other such story I have read, his characters are not teenagers living in Western affluence, but villagers in a fictional Central Asian country, at the intersection of the Turkic and Chinese cultural spheres, in other words about as far from the West as you can culturally get in today’s world. I thought it was fascinating and compassionate.

However. Ryman is a proponent of the “mundane science fiction” school and oddly enough the two most problematic elements for me in the book for me were the two most fantastic ones. The physical flood threatening to overwhelm the village threatened to be a rather overstated echo of the metaphorical deluge of the new technology, but I think Ryman just about got away with it in the end. The heroine’s bizarre pregnancy, however, just did not work for me.

Sixteen years on, I stand by both limbs of that judgement. It’s a great book about the impact of technology on a previously isolated culture, and in a lot of respects feels a lot more prophetic now than it did then – the concept of Air is pretty close to how Facebook developed in our timeline. But I still find it hard to swallow (if you see what I mean) the heroine’s pregnancy, and that kills my suspension of disbelief, however much I liked the rest of it.

Air won all three of the BSFA, Tiptree and Clarke Awards presented in 2006, only the second novel (so far) to have got the treble after Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. I think Air has stood the passage of time better. You can get it here.

Both Accelerando, by Charles Stross, and Learning the World, by Ken MacLeod, were also on the BSFA and Clarke shortlists. Also on the BSFA list were 9tail Fox, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Living Next Door to the God of Love, by Justina Robson. I felt that all of these books had flaws, but would probably have voted for Ken MacLeod. The BSFA Short Fiction award went to “Magic for Beginners”, by Kelly Link, which also won the Nebula and which I loved.

The other three books on the Clarke shortlist were Banner of Souls, by Liz Williams, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Pushing Ice, by Alastair Reynolds, which I have not read. I’m surprised that Ishiguro did not win; as a judge I think I’d have been torn between MacLeod and Williams.

I have not read any of the novels on the Tiptree Honor List apart from the winner. The others were A Brother’s Price, by Wen Spencer; Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Remains, by Mark W. Tiedemann; and Willful Creatures, by Aimee Bender. The shortlist also included short stories by Vonda N. McIntyre and Margo Lanagan, the latter of which I have read but cannot now remember much about. The long list included another twelve novels, four short stories, a website and a non-fiction piece, none of which rings a bell.

The following year, the three awards went to four book, the Tiptree being shared by Shelley Jackson’s Half Life and Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden, the BSFA going to End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and the Clarke to Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison.


The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 10: biography, the ones you can’t see in Gent, and the Kasteel van Horst

My quest to find all of the surviving stucco ceilings by Jan Christian Hansche has come to an end, I think. Today I visited the last of his surviving work that is on display; but before I get to that, a couple of related points. (Previous entries in this series:  Park Abbey in Leuventhe Chateau de Modave near Namurthe ones that have been destroyed in Germanythe Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brusselsthe Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namurthe Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerptwo ceilings in Gentthe Sablon in Brussels and Beaulieu Castle in Machelen; Schoonhoven Castle in Aarschot.)

First off, I came across this Facebook post by Jan Caluwaerts on the documentary records of Hansche’s life – and I actually went and had a good long conversation with Jan Caluwaerts about it yesterday, for which many thanks. It turns out that Hansche was from the town of Olfen in Germany, not so far from Kleve and Wesel where we know he worked. His three children were baptised in Brussels in 1651, 1653 and 1654. In 1661 he applied for (and got) citizenship in Brussels, along with his assistant Hendrick Daelemans.

In his citizenship application, he claims that he has lived in Brussels for ten years, and has worked inside and outside of the city, in churches, monasteries, and the homes of prelates, princes and lords, and that his fame has spread to Italy, Austria and Germany. Given that only the Antwerp, Horst and Machelen ceilings survive from before 1661, and the only surviving Brussels work is from 1684, there must have been a lot of Hansche’s work in Brussels which was destroyed by the French bombardment in 1695.

Brussels, then as now, was the regional capital and the ideal place to pick up commissions. But it was necessary for Hansche to join the Guild of Plasterers and Stuccadors, who did their best to regulate him to do things their way – in particular, they tried to force him to accept a Brussels-born apprentice (and eventually succeeded), and made him pay fines for non-compliance with the regulations; when he paid the fines out of the massive fees he had got for his ceilings, they tried to raise the fines. Eventually in 1666 he just left Brussels; whether he established a permanent base elsewhere is not recorded, but the big later projects in Leuven, Modave and Gent must have required him to be on-site most of the time.

Speaking of Gent: five panels by Hansche survive from the house of the Canfyn family, which was demolished in 1902. I have spoken to two people who have seen them, but they are in storage in a workshop near Gent, waiting for the right moment to put them on display. The panels represent Time and the Four Seasons, and fortunately photographs of all five are in the online Gent city archive.

Here is Time (not sure about the iconography here – could it actually be the Assumption?):

A slightly blurry Spring, but helpfully the date is clear:

A more blurry Summer, though you can see that the figure at bottom right leans out of the panel:

A clearer Autumn, with fauns and humans making wine, several of them instruding into our space:

And a much clearer Winter. Look at the firewood protruding to the right.

I don’t see an actual signature by Hansche here, but maybe it’s in a part of the artwork that was not photographed (or has been lost).

Today I completed my tour of the surviving Hansche ceilings with a visit to the Castle of Horst, between Leuven and Aarschot. It’s usually closed, but they are having a Heritage Day today, and I was greeted at the gates by a piper.

The castle itself is rather gorgeous, and is the base for the Red Knight in the well-known Flemish series of comics.

Sadly the castle is in very poor shape, though repairs are scheduled to start Real Soon Now. There are three rooms with Hansche ceilings – not quite as elaborate as some (he seems to have really got into his groove after 1655, when these are dated) but interesting enough. Here’s the ceiling of the antechamber, two panorama shots taken from opposite sides of the room so that the middle panel is there twice from different angles.

The badly damaged cartouche on the right has the date 1655.

The ceilings were commissioned by the owner of the castle, Maria-Anna van den Tympel after her husband, Albert Mulert, had died in 1644. She herself died in 1658, so had only three years to enjoy Hansche’s stuccos, which have lasted more than three and a half centuries since.

Upstairs are two rooms with much more impressive stuff from Hansche. The biggest room shows stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The first panel shows the story of Battus being turned into a stone for being indiscreet. Apollo, on the left, has got too distracted playing his pipes to look after his cattle; Mercury, on the right, steals the cattle and realises that Battus, in the middle, is likely to snitch on him, and transforms him to stone; you can see his legs becoming rock. (What secret was the baroness worrying about?)

The next two show the much better known story of Jason and Medea. Jason and the Argonauts had come from afar to Colchis (now Georgia, of course) in search of the Golden Fleece, guarded by a dragon. Medea, the daughter of the king, falls in love with Jason and in the first panel he meets her at the temple of Hecate, where she provides him with herbs to drug the dragon. In the second panel he pours the drugs onto the dragon, to make it fall asleep so that he can grab the Golden Fleece off the tree behind it. It’s a story that fascinates me for other reasons.

The next two panels show the story of Cephalus and Procris, a king and queen who had a rather on-again, off-again relationship. In the first frame, they are getting back together again after one of their arguments, and Procris presents Cephalus with a hunting dog and a spear that never misses. Alas, she became suspicious of him and followed him while he was hunting; he threw the inerrant spear at the suspicious rustle where she was hiding in the bushes, and killed her. (I would add that poor dying Procris has the most realistic female torso of any of Hansche’s figures that I have seen anywhere.)

Finally, we have Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection and about to be transformed into a daffodil, to the dismay of his dog (or dogs).

The final room has just four allegorical panels, three of which do not seem linked to any particular myth. It also has badly decayed biblical scenes pained on the walls.

The fabric of the building is generally in poor shape.

Anyway, here is a woodcutter, having a go at the tree and realising that NON VNO STERNITUR ICTV (it is not felled with one blow), a standard saying about the virtues of perseverance.

Here’s King David, playing the harp to the motto MVSICA SERVA DEI (music is the handmaid of God). Note the Tetragrammaton יהוה‎ in wobbly Hebrew script crammed into the upper right corner.

By the fireplace is a more enigmatic piece, Mars and Minerva holding cornucopias, and the slogan IN NOCTE CONSILIVM (council by night).

And finally, at the other end of the room, it’s Mars again but this time with Venus and the slogan ARTE ET MARTE (by skill and valour). It also has Hansche’s own signoff – the date ANNO 1655 and his initials I C H (for Ian Christian Hansche).

These are not as daring as Hansche’s later work – perhaps he was still struggling to find a way for limbs, weapons and monsters to emerge from the ceiling. But they somehow feel more personal. I am struck that in the Ovid room the first panel (Battus) is about betrayal of a confidence about a sin and the other three feature doomed love (Jason and Medea, Cephalus and Procris, and Narcissus with himself). It’s also interesting that the well-educated woman who commissioned the work has the goddesses of wisdom and of love separately consorting with Mars in the last room.

Unfortunately we know little more of her except the dates of her birth (1606), marriage (1636), widowhood (1644), inheritance of the castle from a cousin (1650) and her own death (1658). She had no surviving children, and after her death the castle went to her nephew, who was married to a niece of her husband’s. We can make some guesses, I think.

So, that’s the end for now of my search for Hansche’s work. There are precisely ten places where it can still be seen in situ, chronologically as follows:

1653 sacristy ceiling in Charles Borromeus church, Antwerpen
1655 Horst
castle, Sint-Pieters-Rode; see above
1659 Beaulieu Castle, Machelen
(1660: I have reluctantly struck the library ceiling at the University of Gent from my list; it just doesn’t look like Hansche’s work at all.)
1666-1672 Modave castle
1668-70 St Nicholas church, Perk
1669 St Remigius church, Franc-Waret
1671 chapel ceiling at Schoonhoven castle, Aarschot
1672/1679 Park Abbey, Leuven
(1672 – lost ceilings depicting St Martin and St Augustine in St Martin’s Priory, Leuven, demolished in 19th century)
(also around 1672 – lost ceilings in Wesel, Germany, destroyed in WW2)
(1673 Canfyn House, Gent – see above; house demolished in 1902 but ceilings are in storage)
1673 Brouwershuis, Gent
(1677 – lost ceilings in Kleve, Germany, destroyed in WW2)
1684 Our Lady of the Victories chuch, Grand Sablon, Brussels

There are a lot of gaps in the above. We only know of three that have been destroyed in the last century or so; there must have been a lot more once, especially before 1695 in Brussels.

I am thinking of putting all of this together into a small but lavishly illustrated ebook, and there are one or two other research ends that I still want to pursue. But the main chunk of this project is over, for now.

Saturday reading

The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
The Man from Yesterday, by Nick Walters
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
The Past Is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente

Last books finished
Elder Race, by Adian Tchaikovsky
Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire
Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers

Next books
The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe
Tower, by Nigel Jones

February 2016 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.

In the real world, this was the month of Ireland’s 2016 parliamentary election, in which Fianna Fáil did not quite regain the top spot that they had previously had, and ended up supporting a minority Fine Gael government.

I had three trips that month – one to Belgrade again, where I don’t seem to have taken pictures, and two to London, in both of which I nipped out to see exhibitions: one about John Dee, at the Royal College of Physicians, with Shana and Alison, and one about the Soviet space programme, at the Science Museum. (Some will remember a very pleasant dinner at Mele e Pere in London.) I followed up on John Dee by analysing a hand-written horoscope that he had done. Back in Belgium, I explored the sculptures of Woluwe Saint-Pierre. Here’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, at dusk.

I read rather fewer books than usual this month – the consequence of several trips where I wasn’t able to read much either in transit or when I got there. Also to be honest the accelerating Brexit debate was developing the bad habit of doomscrolling.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 9)
A People’s Peace for Cyprus, by Alexander Lordos, Erol Kaymak and Nathalie Tocci
The Sinn Féin Rebellion As I Saw It, by Mrs Hamilton Norway
The Insurrection in Dublin, by James Stephens

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Fiction (non-sf): 1 (YTD 3)
Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver

SF (non-Who): 5 (YTD 17)
Tik-Tok by John Sladek
Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson
The Magic Cup, by Andrew Greeley
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Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 8)
Short Trips: The Muses, ed. Jacqueline Rayner
Citadel of Dreams by Dave Stone
The Sword of Forever, by Jim Mortimore
The Legends of Ashildr, by James Goss, David Llewellyn, Jenny T. Colgan and Justin Richards
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3,300 pages (YTD 10,600)
7/15 (YTD 25/44) by women (Tocci, Hamilton Norway, Kingsolver, Jemisin, Wilson, Rayner, Colgan)
1/15 (YTD 6/44) by PoC (Jemisin)

The best of these was Europe at Midnight, which you can get here, followed by Prodigal Summer, which you can get here. The Magic Cup has not aged well, but you can get it here.

Irish surname maps

I have developed a minor fascination with Barry Griffin’s surname maps website, which allows you to track the geographical distribution of surnames across Ireland in the censuses of 1901 and 1911.

Obviously I start with my own relatives. There are not a lot of Whytes with a Y in Ireland on that date, and there’s no strong concentration. I know that my own Whyte great-grandparents were in Dublin rather than County Down on census day in 1911, but they blend into the bigger picture there. (My Whyte grandfather was not in Ireland.)

My Whyte great-grandmother’s maiden name was Ryan, and that is a surname with a very distinct distribution; she came from Inch, Co Tipperary, which is pretty much at the core of the Ryan map.

My father’s mother was American, and neither her maiden name nor her mother’s maiden name scores significantly on the Irish map.

My mother’s father was born in 1909, but he and his parents do not seem to have been in Ireland on census day in 1911; I have found his parents in Bandon, Co Cork, in the 1901 census. His name was Murray, which is more of a Midlands name but has a Munster concentration as well; his mother’s maiden name was Dineen, which is much more clearly concentrated in northwest Cork (where my great-grandparents were living with her parents in 1901).

Finally, my maternal grandmother, though born in Dublin, was of northern Protestant stock; although her father was born in Cootehill, Co Cavan, his family were from Antrim; her mother’s family were from the other side of the Lower Bann, the valley meadowlands just south of Coleraine.

I am very tempted to go through the maps and find which surname has the strongest association with each county. We’ve seen the Ryan link with Tipperary above; here are a few more, going south to north and starting with the McCarthy clan in Cork:

Then the Sullivans in Kerry (spilling over to Cork a bit):

Reilly in Cavan and Meath, spilling into neighbouring counties:

And out west, Gallagher in Donegal and Mayo, spreading along the coast in between:

Anyway, I’ve found it a fascinating site for casual browsing of Ireland’s genealogical history and geography in broad sweeps. Do have a look.

Best Novelette Hugo, 2022

As with Best Short Story, I’m not going to record my own preferences, just the fact that I’ve read this category.

“Bots of the Lost Ark”, by Suzanne Palmer. Second paragraph of third section:

Before it left the bot repository, it visited the shellfab unit for reconfiguration. Speed and agility were important, so it added external rotors in a foldable X configuration to its chassis, upgraded its connection utilities, and onboarded a second communications receiver and a half-dozen other repair and maintenance modules it was likely to need. At last, after consideration, it added a small electrified probe and shielding. It did not like the thought that it might find itself in hostile opposition to its fellow bots, but from the history logs Ship had given it access to, there was a 93 percent probability that it was unavoidable.

“Colors of the Immortal Palette”, by Caroline M. Yoachim. Second paragraph of third section (“Chrome Yellow”):

The immortal artist—and yes, I am sufficiently petty not to name him even now, for his artistic legacy does not need more help from me than I have already given—is here at the Salon, of course, though I am pleased to note that despite him having taken part in perhaps a hundred Salons, the hanging committee has placed his work poorly. Not at the ceiling, quite, but high enough to strain the neck should anyone wish an extended viewing.

L’Esprit de L’Escalier, by Catherynne M. Valente. Second paragraph of third section:

Whatever comfortable has come to mean for either of them.

“O2 Arena”, by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. Second paragraph of third section:

We had a plethora of assignments and projects that kept us buried to our eyebrows, even on weekends. But assignments were rarely my concern on weekdays, much less weekends. And on this weekend, Ovoke was gone.

“That Story Isn’t the Story”, by John Wiswell. Second paragraph of third section:

Grigorii drops the yellow sketch pad in Anton’s lap along with a few colored pencils. “Literally had these leftover for ten years. Can you believe it? They waited for you.”

“Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.”, by Fran Wilde. Second paragraph of third section:

The Lighting Gown shocked a dancer’s escort. The Ocean and Moon Gown seemed to grow heavier on Odelle until she had to sit down. She was found drenched in the restrooms, but alive, much later. Dora’s sharp laughter echoed in the empty store.

Eastercon 2022: Reclamation

Back in January 2020, before the world ended, I was attending a planning meeting for the bid to host the 2024 WorldCon in Glasgow, when two of the committee literally grabbed me and said they needed a word. One of them was Phil Dyson, and he revealed that he and his team were planning to bid for the 2022 Eastercon, the UK’s National Science Fiction Convention; and that they were formally inviting me to be the Fan Guest of Honour.

I was stunned into silence. (A rare occurrence.) If you look at the list of Guests of Honour for previous Eastercons, there are some pretty prestigious names there as both pro and fan guests, including some who I have slavishly admired since my teenage years. At the same time, I am very aware that you and I could easily name at least a dozen people who have put more years and work into fandom than I have, who have not yet been recognised in that way. So I had a really vivid moment of impostor syndrome.

And yet, it did not take me many seconds to say yes to Phil. I came late to Eastercon – my first was as recently as 2012 – but I have loved the atmosphere each time I attended in person, and felt more and more that this is an accepting community; my tribe. I accepted Phil’s proposal, and he looked relieved. So that was January 2020.

And then, as you know. the world ended.

The 2020 Eastercon, ConCentric, which would have been in Birmingham, was simply cancelled in all respects apart from an online bid session, at which the 2021 team presented their plans – and were given the community’s approval to proceed – and Phil presented his intention to bid for 2022, but declared that it was too early to seek formal approval. Eastercons do not reveal their Guests of Honour until they have won the selection vote. I was in the tantalising situation where I had hoped that the 2022 committee would go public, but of course they decided not to.

The 2021 Eastercon, Confusion, took place entirely virtually. This had its pluses and minuses (as reported in detail by Jo van Ekeren). The biggest plus was that at least it actually happened, and from my spare bedroom in Belgium I moderated one panel, spoke on two others and participated in several more. In particular, I learned a lot about Chinese SF from a panel about Jin Yong. The downside was that the technology was raw; many of the early panels and discussions were not streamed live, and the organisers seemed disturbingly nonchalant about the negative experiences of some participants.

There was, again, a bid session, held virtually. The 2021 team asked for another chance in 2023, and a challenger arose and advocated instead that the 2023 decision should be postponed. The session agreed. It also agreed, with little dissent, to approve Phil’s bid for the 2022 Eastercon, to be called “Reclamation”. At that point my own involvement became public, and so were my fellow Guests of Honour: Zen Cho, Mary Robinette Kowal and Philip Reeve. People in general were very kind about this, and if there was a negative comment on my role, I missed it completely. (If you did see any such thing, don’t feel that you need to enlighten me.)

Zen Cho had unfortunately had to withdraw for family reasons, but I’m glad to say that she will be one of the Guests of Honour at next year’s Eastercon instead. My father and both of her parents were born in what is now Malaysia, which is probably three more Malaysian-born GoH parents than in the previous history of Eastercon.

By the time the announcement was made, I had rather unexpectedly taken on the role of WSFS Division Head for the 2021 WorldCon, DisCon III to be held in Washington DC. I relinquished that role in late June, and shortly thereafter the Chair of the convention also resigned, to be replaced by one Mary Robinette Kowal, my fellow Eastercon 2022 Guest of Honour. The first thing I said to her when I saw her last weekend was to apologise for my role in thrusting that particular burden on her shoulders. I will not report her response.

Anyway, time passed, the plague receded to an extent, and last Thursday I set off to Heathrow (after a couple of days working in London), arriving in time for a lovely dinner with my wife and son and the Committee (and, in theory, the other Guests of Honour; but they all arrived on Friday).

Zen’s replacement was Tasha Suri, whose work I’m ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with, though in my 2020 Hugo administration role I had sent her a finalist pin for being on the inaugural Astounding Award ballot. Tasha was a bit distracted by domestic events during the weekend, but I instinctively liked her as a person and have now bought some of her work to enjoy.

As mentioned above, I knew Mary Robinette best of the other GoHs. We had some good rehashing of recent events, which again will not be further reported. She and Ian Whates did a breezy and enjoyable BSFA Awards ceremony. (Though I had only voted for one winner.) Her interests are gratifyingly eclectic, and I hoped but failed to go to a couple of her panels on historical topics. She flew out a little early to go to Kjell Lindgren’s next space launch.

Philip Reeve was a real discovery. Famous for Mortal Engines, of course, the only other book of his that I had read was a Fourth Doctor / Leela story from 2013 which I greatly enjoyed. Anne, F and I dined with him in the hotel on the Saturday and then took him out with a larger group including Mary Robinette on the Sunday. A charming, modest and reserved chap, who I hope we will see again.

Phil Dyson introduces the Guests of Honour – me, Tasha Suri, Philip Reeve and Mary Robinette Kowal

Badly backlit after-dinner photo on Sunday night

Apart from the opening and closing ceremonies, I had four panels, a Kaffeeklatsch and a formal stage interview during the weekend. When I say I had four panels, one of them was simply introducing Wendy Aldiss presenting her lovely book, My Father’s Things, in a discussion with Brian Aldiss’s publisher Scott Pack, and then sitting back in the audience and enjoying the illustrated narration.

The other three were two on politics and one on Doctor Who, which seems about right. They were front-loaded so that on Sunday all I had to worry about was the GoH interview, or so I thought. My Kaffeeklatsch was first thing on Saturday, and only two people came, both of whom I already knew well (Hi, Shana! Hi, Colette!); I wonder if there would have been more if it had been scheduled after my GoH interview rather than before?

All praise to Vincent Doherty, who carefully managed a delightful interview, much of which was summarised by the BSFA scribe Emily (click on the tweet for her full account):

These were the slides that Vince assembled from the photos I had sent in advance:

Two other things happened on the Sunday. The first was the hotly contested bid for the 2023 Eastercon, where I was called in to read aloud the (newly finalised) rules. The choice between the two contenders was resolved by a lobby vote, with each of the two bids assigned a door and supporters asked to leave the room by one or the other. Virtual votes, and votes from the less mobile, were tallied in parallel and added in. The winning bid had almost exactly 60% of support, which is comfortable but not crushing. Apparently this was the closest vote since the revolutionary year of 1989.

The other significant thing on Sunday was the new Doctor Who episode, a swashbuckling bit of Chinese pirate fun along with Sea Devils. (They call humans “Land Parasites”.) I won’t analyse it in depth, yet; I loved the deepening of the Doctor / Yasmin relationship and I loved even more the imminent return of Tegan and Ace.

Incidentally, and I should have posted this in February, I got a pic with Mandip Gill, who plays Yasmin, at Gallifrey One in February, and the green-screen effect means that the Tardis appears to be visible through my torso. They offered me another photo-op, but I quite like it.

Yesterday was much more relaxed, for me anyway. I attended the live recording of the Octothorpe podcast, where I was roundly mocked for predicting that they would win a BSFA Award, my attempts at camouflage proving strangely ineffective. (Note F, sitting beside me, wishing he was anywhere else.)

My attempt to hide from the scorn of Octothorpe

It was fantastic to be back with real people again, and I loved seeing all of you. You made my family very welcome as well, and that makes a big difference. Many thanks to Phil and all of his committee, and congratulations to James Shields on winning the Doc Weir Award. And I do hope to come again next year, though it does depend a bit on the venue.

A number of people inevitably came away with COVID as a souvenir of the convention. So far the numbers seem to be barely into double figures, out of 700 attendees, and I myself have tested negative. (Having caught my own dose at Novacon in November.) Fingers crossed that nobody is too badly affected.

Fannish friends will forgive my closing with our dear H, our guest for many Christmases, who cycled many miles to come and see us on Friday evening and Saturday morning. I hope that it will not be too long before we see any of you again.

Best Short Story Hugo, 2022

As I’m Deputy Administrator this year, I’m not going to record my own preferences, just the fact that I’ve read each category as I work through them.

Interesting variation of format in the Short Story category, with one a Twitter thread of functional screenshots from a text conversation, and another told through Wiki-style edits. Also I noted two different takes on the afterlife.

“Mr. Death”, by Alix E. Harrow. Second paragraph of third section:

I couldn’t see her, but I could sort of sense her: a soft, amber gaze hovering at the edges of the hospital room, watching the labored rise and fall of my chest. 

“Proof by Induction”, by José Pablo Iriarte. Second paragraph of third section:

The chaplain sighs. “The equipment will be cleaned and reused, except for the actual leads that connected to his scalp, which are disposed of.”

“The Sin of America”, by Catherynne M. Valente. Second paragraph of third section:

There’s a woman outside of Sheridan sitting on a threadbare bluebell-patterned cushion a dead lady once thought was so classy and beautiful it would turn her into a better person so she bought the whole bolt of fabric without even looking at the price.

“Tangles”, by Seanan McGuire. Second paragraph of third section:

They were just . . . stuck.

“Unknown Number”, by Blue Neustifter. Second paragraph of third screenshot:

I am literally five seconds from blocking this number.

“Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather”, by Sarah Pinsker. Second paragraph of commentary on third verse:

Ellen and her sisters represent the three Fates. –Dynamum

January 2016 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 year with a trip to London (for some reason I flew to Heathrow rather than taking the Chunnel, no idea why). Mid month I attempted to fly to Serbia, but the weather was against me and I only got as far as Munich. Later in the month I successfully got to Skopje and then Dubrovnik on the same trip. Dubrovnik as always was spectacular.

At home, I started my very enjoyable rewatch of Here Come the Double Deckers!

I read 29 books that month.

Non-fiction: 6
Lois McMaster Bujold, by Edward James
Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J. R. R. Tolkien, eds. Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan
Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, ed. Janet Brennan Croft

The Story of Ireland by Brendan O’Brien
No Official Umbrella, by Glyn Jones
On The Way To Diplomacy, by Costas Constantinou

Fiction (non-sf): 2
Travelling Light, by Tove Jansson
The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

SF (non-Who): 12
Jews vs Aliens, eds Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene
A Day In Deep Freeze, by Lisa Shapter
Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, by Cassandra Khaw
The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton
Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Touch, by Claire North
Streetlethal, by Steven Barnes
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard
Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

Doctor Who, etc: 4
Zodiac ed Jacqueline Rayner
Relative Dementias, by Mark Michalowski
Dry Pilgrimage, by Paul Leonard and Nick Walters
Royal Blood, by Una McCormack

Comics: 5
Saga vol 5, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Ms. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why, by G. Willow Wilson
Sex Criminals, Vol. 2: Two Worlds, One Cop, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Bételgeuse, tome 3 : L’Expédition by Leo
Thor Volume 1: Goddess of Thunder, by Jason Aaron

7,300 pages
18/29 by women (Brennan Croft, Donovan Janssen, Monro, Levene, Shapter, Khaw, Walton, Hand, Novik, North, Cho, de Bordard, Leckie, Rayner, McCormack, Staples, Wilson)
5/29 by PoC (Barnes, Khaw, Cho, de Bodard, Staples)

I’m going to give you five good books and no bad ones this month:

  • Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie (get it here)
  • The Love of a Good Woman, by Alice Munro (get it here)
  • Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand (get it here)
  • Travelling Light, by Tove Jansson (get it here) and
  • Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I, by Janet Brennan Croft (get it here)

Saturday reading

The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters

Last books finished
The Ultimate Foe, by James Cooray Smith
Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T Barbini
Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell
L’Esprit de L’Escalier, by Catherynne M. Valente
Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher
Legends of Camelot, by Jacqueline Rayner

Next books
Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, by Mark Blake
The Limbless Landlord, by Brian Igoe

Belfast, by Kenneth Branagh

A week ago (wow, it’s been such a long week) the British Mission to the EU and the Northern Irish representative office jointly put on a showing of the Kenneth Branagh film Belfast at the Bozar in central Brussels.

It was just lovely to actually have a physical reception, after two years when it was very difficult. The British Ambassador made a wee speech:

Also the Northern Ireland deputy representative made a wee speech; and my friend Paul took photos, in the first of which my back is visible at the left.

Probably the majority of us in the crowd were Norn Iron exiles in Brussels; a few arty people had come over specially for the occasion, but basically this was UKMis showing that it was a good social actor; and succeeding.

Here’s the official trailer.

So, what did I think of the film?

I was born in 1967, so I was about 2 at the point that the events of the film unfold. (Though apparently “helicopter” – or “ally-agga” – was one of my first words, as we saw them zoom west over the garden.) A lot of it doesn’t really speak true to the Belfast experience. Nobody ever wandered down the streets with flaming torches. There were no Indian corner shops, and no ethnic minority teachers. There was no wee Catholic girl in the Protestant school. The bus to the airport didn’t exactly stop in side streets to pick people up. The houses were (and are) much smaller. The accents are much stronger in real life.

At the same time, one can forgive a lot of this for the sake of Art. Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds and Judy Dench are all actors who I knew anyway; I have seen one episode of Outlander starring Caitriona Balfe and now I have a strange impulse to see more. And young Jude Hill, from my ancestral part of the world, is glorious as the main character. The (Oscar-winning) script really crackles.

Pa: It’s all bloody religion. That’s the problem.
Buddy: Then why are you sending us to church?
Pa: Because your granny would kill me if I didn’t.

Pop: [to Buddy] Women are very mysterious.
Granny: And women can smash your face in too, mister.
Pop: Your granny’s become less mysterious over the years.

(After the supermarket has been looted)
Ma: Why did you take that washing powder?
Buddy: It’s biological!

Having said that, there’s no real interrogation of why the Troubles started in the first place. I think it would have been helpful for the audience to know that decades of injustice and discrimination do eventually bring the chickens home to roost. The impression given is that violence erupted purely out of sectarianism and bigotry at local level, which is far from the whole truth.

Having said that, I think almost all of us in Bozar related to the central dilemma of Buddy’s parents in the film; will you stay or will you go? And from the mere fact that we were in Brussels, we were all exiles, whether permanently or temporarily; and it was easy to relate to the problem of leaving a city that you love, and yet where you can’t live, and risking everything on a foreign venture. It works for a lot of people; it worked for Kenneth Branagh’s family and mine; it doesn’t work for everyone, and before you do it you don’t know what category you’ll end up in.

So yeah. I liked it, warts and all.

The Ultimate Foe, by James Cooray Smith (and Robert Holmes, Eric Saward and Pip and Jane Baker)

The fourteenth in the Black Archive sequence of analyses of Doctor Who, this takes the sensitive topic of the two-part story that ended Colin Baker’s time as the Sixth Doctor – billed on TV at the time as “Trial of a Time Lord” episodes 13 and 14, but generally known now as The Ultimate Foe. When I first watched it in 2006, I was not forgiving.

Sadly, there is nothing to be said in favour of the last segment of the Trial of a Time Lord, two episodes credited to three writers [Robert Holmes for the first – though it turns out that Eric Saward, then the script editor, rewrote a large chunk of it – and Pip and Jane Baker for the second], a botched farrago of half-baked Time Lord lore, where we find out that the Valeyard is a projection of the Doctor’s future self, and he and the Master take it in turns to do the evil cackle. The Time Lords have forgotten who the Master is, despite what happened in The Deadly Assassin and their summoning of his aid in The Five Doctors. The means available to the Master and the Valeyard are conveniently immense and yet just not quite immense enough to destroy the Doctor. I am even a bit dubious about Peri’s survival, which rather critically undermines the drama of her death (and the chemistry between her and King Yrcanos was as absent as that between Leela and Andred – at least SusanVicki and Jo got decent parting romances.) It’s a shame that after delivering so many classics Robert Holmes’ final contribution is such a dud, and the Sixth Doctor, having won his trial, then gets regenerated anyway. The miracle is that the show was allowed another three years after this awful closure to an over-ambitious season.

Rewatching it in 2011, I had not mellowed:

And then The Ultimate Foe is a poor farewell to a misused Doctor. There is little good to be said of it – Eric Saward’s original script for the second episode makes more sense than Pip and Jane Baker’s version as broadcast, but that is not saying much. The Valeyard’s role does become clear, and actually interesting, but the back-story of Time Lord politics simply becomes confusing and the means and motivation of the Master, crucial to what passes for a plot, are even less comprehensible than usual. (And we have the cop-out of Peri’s faked death, which kills the drama of the only interesting development of the entire season.)

Rewatching it again, I felt exactly the same. The first episode is not bad, but it is let down by the second episode. As my brother put it, “this story is not just boring and not just stupid: it is boring AND stupid.”

There are of course good reasons why the whole thing ended up in such a mess, and James Cooray Smith takes us through them; but before we get there, let’s briefly look at the novelisation by Pip and Jane Baker. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

His [the Master’s] brooding eyes surveyed the scene below him. ‘By me, Madam,’ he repeated, enjoying the consternation his intrusion had caused.

When I read it in 2008, I wrote:

Alas, it doesn’t matter how many exclamation marks you add, this remains an incoherent story; and while the Bakers valiantly attempt to fill it out with extra detail, it is basically beyond salvation from the start.

What I did not know was that the “extra detail” was all in the original script that the Bakers had submitted to the BBC, and excised because at 38 minutes it was far too long for a 25-minute slot.

Rereading, I actually felt that the writing was OK at first, but by the end I still got annoyed by the incoherent plot. Completists will want it anyway, and you can get it here.

From this pig’s ear of source material, James Cooray Smith has produced a surprisingly silky purse. The history of how the TV story was made (or not made) is much more interesting than the TV story itself, and that is what Cooray Smith has chosen to tell.

  • The account begins with the early 1986 attempt by Michael Grade to cancel Old Who (for which he has been called to account on the floor of the House of Lords) and the consequent disruption to production schedules and procedures. Cooray Smith is not charitable to either Grade or his Director of Programmes, Jonathan Powell.
  • He then looks at the writing of the original Robert Holmes script of the first episode, about half of which ended up on screen. The half that did not survive is very dark indeed. The fact is that Holmes was dying at the time, and indeed died before starting on the second episode, and Cooray Smith convincingly argues that this is subconsciously present in the script.
  • The third chapter looks at the uncredited revisions to Robert Holmes’ script carried out by Eric Saward, again including about half of what appeared on screen. Per my usual procedure, here is the second paragraph of the third chapter, along with the quote which it introduces:

Saward revised Part 13 in his capacity as Doctor Who’s Script Editor, and therefore there are no records of exactly when he began or completed his work on it, or when he moved onto writing his version of Part 14. His work on Part 13, though, must have been completed before he resigned from the BBC on 13 April 1986. Saward had been under pressure for at least a year, the production team had literally written off as many scripts as they’d accepted for the 1986 series of Doctor Who, and Holmes’ illness had taken a huge emotional toll on the younger writer:
  ‘I said ultimately to John [Nathan-Turner]… “I feel I can’t serve this any more, I’ve given so much to it already.” John was sort of understanding, I think he was also terrified that he might be left to finish the series on his own, which he ultimately was.”

  • A brief “intermission” asks who the Valeyard actually is.
  • The fourth full chapter looks at the unproduced script for the second episode by Eric Saward, whose rejection by John Nathan-Turner provoked his resignation from the show, taking the script with him. The killer point of dispute with Nathan-Turner was the question of how it should end. Saward insisted on a literal cliff-hanger; Nathan-Turner vetoed the idea; Saward could not take any more, and left. (This was only a few days after Holmes’ death, which had deeply upset both of them.)
  • The fifth and last full chapter tells the story of how Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to write the new second episode with a three-day deadline, forbidden to use any of the ideas from Saward’s script which he had taken with him.
  • The sixth and last chapter pulls all the threads together and finds some degree of sympathy for all involved (except Grade and Powell). Certainly I have to admit that I still don’t like what Pip and Jane Baker wrote, but I am much more sympathetic to their travails now that I have read about them in detail.
  • A really intriguing footnote here tells a story that I did not know. Michael Grade asked Sydney Newman, the original creator of Doctor Who, what he would do with the show; and Newman responded that he would bring back Patrick Troughton for two years, and then regenerate the Doctor into a woman. He also had some rather odd thoughts about child companions, and wanted his own name in the credits as creator of the series. Troughton of course died only a few months later; but it’s fascinating to think what might have been. The source given is Newman’s 2017 memoirs, though I find it in the Daily Telegraph in 2010 and have been told that it was first published in 1996.
  • An appendix looks briefly at the question of what the title of the story actually is. Cooray Smith hints that he would actually have preferred to call the book “Trial of a Time Lord, episodes 13 and 14” but that he “bows to convention” “in deference to [the] DVD release”.
  • A second appendix asks how you can resolve the question of Melanie Bush’s first meeting with the Doctor. Cooray Smith doesn’t seem to be aware of the 2013 Big Finish play The Wrong Doctors, which addresses this issue rather amusingly.
  • A third and final appendix gives the scene breakdowns for the Holmes and Saward scripts of the first episode.

Cooray Smith’s previous Black Archive contribution was on the lost First Doctor story The Massacre, where he similarly converted a complex production history into a compelling narrative. But this is really superb, and it’s the first Black Archive volume that I have liked much more than the story it is covering. 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)

Human Nature/The Family of Blood, by Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard (and Paul Cornell)

So, the 13th in the Black Archive series of analyses of Doctor Who stories reaches a particular favourite, the 2006 Tenth Doctor two-parter Human Nature / The Family of Blood. It was in fact the first and only Who story so far to be based on a novel, Paul Cornell’s 1995 Seventh Doctor novel Human Nature. So I’m going to take the novel first, even though (as is my usual practice) this time round I watched the TV episodes and then re-read the novel.

Just in parenthesis – the first Doctor Who TV story based on a previously published book was actually the first Seventh Doctor story in 1987, Time and the Rani, which is draws heavily on the Sixth Doctor “Make Your Own Adventure With Doctor Who”/”Find Your Fate” game book Race Against Time, also by Pip and Jane Baker, published the previous year (and handy when they needed to write a story in a hurry, as we’ll see with my next entry). However, that is not a novel. There are other cases as well, of course, with Blink based on a short story and Dalek to a certain extent on a Big Finish Play; and Gareth Roberts plundered two of his own comics for The Shakespeare Code and The Lodger.

Back to the original Human Nature novel. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The Captains sat at the back, and the boys at the front, and all of them stood to attention as he entered. He caught a paper dart happily, glanced at it, tweaked the wing a notch and threw it back, straight into the hands of the boy who threw it.

When I first read it in 2005 – before the TV story was transmitted – I wrote:

This Seventh Doctor plus Bernice Summerfield New Adventure is really rather good. Paul Cornell here asks the unaskable: what if the Doctor were to try being human for a while, to live and love like the rest of us? He has managed to get to the heart of the Doctor’s mythos. I found it very satisfying, and raced to finish it, to the point of waking up early this morning to do so. It’s the first of the Doctor Who books I have downloaded that I would really like to spend money on for a dead trees version.

Bits I particularly liked: I thought the character of Verity resonated particularly effectively. “Verity” of course means Truth, and she holds the key to the truth about the Doctor’s character; the name of course also recalls the real-life origins of Doctor Who; and the character herself is of course a very close reflection of Neil Gaiman’s Death.

I also very much liked the human relationships of the book. I caught on to the true nature of Shuttleworth’s liaisons pretty early on; the John Smith and Joan Redfern relationship was neatly done; and the Epilogue, which the author admits he had doubts about putting in, was very effective.

Great lines, too:

“You may know me as mild-mannered John Smith, history teacher, but secretly I’m the Doctor, universal righter of wrongs and protector of cats.”

“So what did you say to him,” the Doctor asked.
“That he believes in good and fights evil. That, with violence all around him, he’s a man of peace. That he’s never cruel, or cowardly. That he is a hero.”

Sure, the book has its flaws, as mercilessly pointed out by some of the Doctor Who Ratings Guide reviewers (though most of them loved it). I’m with the Discontinuity Guide folks, though. I don’t think I’ve read a better Doctor Who novel.

When I reread it in 2011, I wrote:

This is still the only Who novel to have been adapted for television rather than the other way round. I first read it, gulp, seven years ago – the first Seventh Doctor novel I ever read – and would have been rereading it anyway as I shall be rewatching the TV episode soon.

Now that I have read the previous 37 New Adventures, I still think this is one of the best in the series. It is better than most Who novels as a standalone (though Niall Harrison found the continuity heavy going), the major reference to previous novels being to Benny’s loss of her lover in the Albigensian crusade. The Doctor is absent from most of the book and needs to be explained to his own alter ego, John Smith, whose final sacrifice is very effective.

An easy Bechdel pass with Benny bantering with a group of women at a bar in the prologue.

Coming back to it now, I still think it is very effective, and I still think it is one of the best Doctor Who novels ever (and I’ve read a lot more of them since 2011). It is amusing that one of the baddies tries to convince Benny that he is the Tenth Doctor, of all incarnations to choose. The schoolboys are really horrible, with the brutality against Timothy particularly awful. I had also forgotten that one of the boys turns out to be n Gvzr Ybeq va qvfthvfr. But the other thing about the BBC online version (downloaded by me years ago and retained ever since) is the rather lovely artwork by Daryl Joyce. Sadly that’s been dropped from the newly edited version, which you can get here.

The other thing I should say probably at this point is that between reading the book and watching the TV story, I met Paul Cornell at a convention in Dublin, and we have been friends ever since, last seeing each other in Los Angeles in February, and hopefully again this coming weekend at Eastercon (where I am a Guest of Honour this year, and he was a Guest of Honour ten years ago).

So, finally to the TV story. My comment on the first episode when first broadcast was:


There is much more to be said than this, but I will save it until next week.

I didn’t in fact get around to commenting further the next week, but when I got around to the rewatch in 2013 I wrote:

It was good to come back to Human Nature / The Family of Blood so soon after rereading the book, though inevitably it meant doing a bit of compare and contrast; I won’t do this in detail, since Niall Harrison did it back n 2007, but the things that jumped out at me were the following:

Positive points

* On the screen, the appearance of David Tennant playing a different character who happens to look like the Doctor is far more effective than the gradually revealed Mr Smith of the book

* Likewise, Jessica Hynes’ performance as Joan brings far more to the concept of the Doctor’s human self’s lover than did the book, though age of course means she is a very different character

* Similarly, the watch rather than the cricket ball, and the Book of Impossible Things, exploit the TV format beautifully

* The Family of Blood are gloriously sinister, far more so than the Aubertides 

* And basically the fact of the Doctor being human because of the threat from the Family makes much more sense than the original idea of the Aubertides just happening to home along just after the Doctor has arbitrarily decided to try the single-heart club.

Less positive points

* The fate of the Family of Blood still bugs me. The Aubertides in the book are defeated in a fair fight; the Doctor’s meting out of judgement on the Family seems cruel – who made him the judge?

* The battle scene doesn’t work for me. The tragedy of real life war, especially the First World War, is that the other side is human, and the linkage between fighting scarecrows in 1913 and fighting Germans in 1915 seems to me both leaden and mistaken. Frankly turning the entire school to glass would have been a better solution (though technically more difficult).

* The fantasy life-with-Joan-and-kids section is too obvious a borrowing from The Last Temptation of Christ.

* Poor Martha gets much less of a look-in here than Bernice in the book; apart from Blink it’s probably her least visible episode.

It should be added that during the 2020 lockdown, two short story sequels to the TV story taking forward the Daughter-of-Mine plotline were written by Paul Cornell and released on Youtube, later published as part of the Adventures in Lockdown anthology. In case you missed them, here they are, both really short:

Coming back to the 2007 two-parter, I still like it a lot. Tennant’s characterisation of Smith is the heart and soul of it, and reminds us what a versatile actor he actually is. The battle scene grated less for me this time, I guess because having read a lot more about the First World War in the meantime, I’m now more tolerant of different takes on it. One also appreciates knowing that it is setting up one of the most spectacular reveals in the whole history of Who in a couple of episodes’ time.

One interesting aspect is that before this, there had been very few Doctor Who stories set in schools (I listed them here). Now there have been loads, including an entire spinoff series, thanks in part to having a companion who was explicitly a schoolteacher. Of course, for most kids, the boarding school is a fantasy environment anyway.

Paul Cornell is the first New Who writer to get two write-ups in the Black Archive series (from Old Who, David Whitaker has already got there); it should also be said that he’s been a fantastic advocate for the show over the years, even though he is concentrating on other things at the moment, and is probably the most visible writer in broader SF fandom who has emerged from Doctor Who. This is possibly the most extended analysis of his work that I have seen (though saying that may expose my ignorance); the earlier Black Archive volume on Scream of the Shalka concentrated much more on the production than the story.

There is lots to write about here, and Naomi Jacobs and Philip Purser-Hallard give themselves an extra burden by opting (correctly) to write about both the TV story and the book; it would have been weird to try analysing the former without the latter. I think even if you don’t love both stories you would find it a pretty satisfactory analysis.

The chapters cover:

  • A straightforward comparison of book and TV story, looking at the different plot elements and the way in which they were changed from page to screen and from Seventh to Tenth Doctor (and from Benny to Martha).
  • An examination of war, peace, cowardice and trauma in both versions of the story and in the Whoniverse more broadly.
  • A brief survey of schools in the Whoniverse and a briefer examination of the concept of family in this story (in both versions). The second paragraph of this chapter is:

Interestingly, though, both these absences [stories about school and/or family] have been filled during the 21st century, by successive showrunners. Russell T Davies embraced family relationships within the series’ drama, bringing relatives particularly to the fore in his companions’ backstories and present conflicts, while Steven Moffat would make more extensive use of school settings in 2013-16 than all of his predecessors, as well as increasing the prevalence of child characters.

  • A really meaty chapter looking at the story in the context of Christianity, given Cornell’s well known interest in religion; themes touched on include self-sacrifice, the nature of divinity, justice, resurrection/regeneration and temptation. This chapter alone is almost worth the cover price.
  • Another very meaty chapter matching the plot of both book and TV story to the Hero’s Journey of Joseph Campbell.
  • A brief conclusion, followed by four brief appendices.
  • A brief table of correspondences between characters in the book and TV story.
  • Speculation on the life-cycle of the Family (which would no doubt have been expanded if the authors had known about the two 2020 stories).
  • A thought on the Doctor as Merlin.
  • A brief attempt to force both versions of the story into the same continuity.

As I hope will be clear from the above, I think this is one of the better Black Archive books looking at one of the better New Who TV stories and also at one of the best spinoff novels. Recommended. 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)

BSFA Award: Best Non-fiction

Advance warning: I only had time to read the Best Novel, Best Short Story and Best Non-Fiction categories this year, so there will be no write-up here of the BSFA Award shortlist in the new Best Book for Younger readers category. I simply did not have time, and I wonder about the wisdom of adding another full category of books to a fairly short window for reading the shortlists between announcement and deadline. I’m also conscious that, as with yesterday’s post, I’m writing this in a bit of a rush, which is not ideal and means I am not doing any of the nominees justice. Anyway, we shall see. (I have previously written up Best Art, Best Short Fiction and Best Novel)

I have sometimes complained in the past of the Best Non-fiction category not being serious enough. I think it has ended up too serious this year, with all but one of the finalists being firmly academic essays, books or books of essays. My two simple demands of such writing are first, that I feel more educated about what I have already read, and second, that I have some pointers for new stuff to read. I’m afraid that very few of this year’s list did that for me.

6) Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades, by Anna McFarlane. Second sentence of third chapter:

Pattern Recognition is the first novel in the Blue Ant trilogy, which goes on to include Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010). It follows Cayce, a young woman with an acute sensitivity to branding and marketing. This sensitivity, or allergy, manifests itself as a physical reaction that can include nausea and vomiting: ‘some people ingest a single peanut and their head swells like a basketball. When it happens to Cayce, it’s her psyche’ (17). She uses this ‘skill’ in her job as a coolhunter, spotting trends in fashion and passing them on to brands and marketing companies Cayce’s role is based on the sensitivity of her perceptive power – as she puts it, try to recognize a pattern before anyone else does’ (86). She is also a fan of an intemet phenomenon known as ‘the footage’, a series of short films lacking in temporal markers and uploaded anonymously to the intemet. The footage is the subject of much speculation among its followers, the ‘footageheads’ (21) about the origin of the work and whether the short films released online are part of a bigger, complete project. Cayce is hired by Hubertus Bigend of the Blue Ant Corporation, ostensibly to help the company choose a logo. It transpires, however, that Bigend’s real motivation is for Cayce to discover the makers of the footage. Cayce tracks them to Russia via Japan before discovering the truth about the intemet phenomenon: the footage is created by a young woman named Nora, disabled by a piece of shrapnel lodged in her brain, with the help of her twin sister, Stella. Throughout the novel Cayce struggles to come to terms with the loss of her father, Win, a Cold War security expert who went missing on 9/11. To make the connections between Patten Recog-nition and the gestalt I begin by explaining Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm shift in relation to scientific revolutions before highlighting the nature of the paradigm as a gestalt switch. The ‘anomaly’ of 9/11 undermines the paradigm that existed before, and the reliability of pattern recognition itself. This crisis is expressed through Cayce and her struggle with her own gestalt perception as she attempts to find the maker of the footage and struggles with ‘faulty pattern recognition’. Despite the novel’s contemporary setting it retains some characteristics of science fiction and I argue that the tension between the dystopian impulse of advertising and the utopian impulse of the footage is one of the ways the novel continues to work in a speculative tradition, and begins to imagine a future. Just as the imagery of chaos theory is used to depict human exceptionalism in visual language, the power of the gestalt switch is used as a visual way of describing estrangement from an unpredictable world and the oscillation between utopian and dystopian futures

This is an in-depth analysis of the writing of William Gibson, an author who is much admired by many people, but who I personally find almost unreadable. I read to the end but my views were not changed. Fortunately I was able to get a free copy; you can get it here for a hefty price.

5) The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe in Contemporary Culture, by Mark Bould. Second sentence of third chapter:

Since [Paul] Kingsnorth and [Arundhati] Roy had each published only a single novel at the time [2015], this is hardly a damning indictment or indicative of anything much. But [Amitav] Ghosh’s claims about their work, and his own, betrays a quite stunning literal-mindedness about what it means for a text to be ‘about’ climate change.

Earnest book on climate change and science fiction, which did not really make the arguments very interesting. You can get it here.

4) “Science Fiction and the Pathways out of the COVID Crisis”, by Val Nolan. Third paragraph (of a total of five):

In that way, science fiction is uniquely equipped to envision the ‘charismatic mega-ideas’ which the COVID-19 pandemic asks us to internalise (Robinson 2020). It comprises a dynamic reservoir of assumptions and expectations present ‘both in casual conversation […] and in more formal capacities’ such as disaster preparedness exercises (Mirmalek 2020, 102). Through prose, graphic narratives, films, and TV shows, the genre has long informed us about likely responses to the kinds of revised social contract which now seem to await us, especially that pertaining to human health and enhanced (self-)surveillance. It does this through exaggerated allegories, a process traceable to SF’s originator, Mary Shelley, who herself reconnoitred the viral apocalypse subgenre in her 1826 novel The Last Man. Though Shelley is not quite Patient Zero for pandemic SF, modern science fiction continues to address the themes she emphasised. Take, for instance, the psychological impact of the half-deserted world in Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joseph Russo, 2019), a shared cultural moment prefiguring the miasma of loss, languishment, and constant apprehension which defines our socially distant present. The use of SF in this fashion may seem outlandish, maybe even frivolous to some critics, however one is put in mind of the observation in Max Brooks’s World War Z (2006) that ‘no matter how unlikely or far-fetched a possibility might be, one must always dig deeper’ (Brooks 2006). Science fiction is the genre which digs deeper, and our current ‘space of apocalyptic expectation’ is one which it has explored for nearly two centuries (Caduf 2015).

Nothing much wrong with this essay except that it is less than 1500 words in length, which would be skimping it for an undergraduate assignment, never mind an award-winning piece. You can read it here.

3) Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T Barbini. Second sentence of third essay (“Relationships with the Land in Fantasy and Science Fiction: Landscape as Identity, Mentor, or Antagonist”, by Sarah McPherson):

Well known authors from the fantasy tradition who use landscape effectively in this way include J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising Sequence), and Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath). As well as these, this paper will discuss more recent works in which the landscape is integral to the characters and narrative, from N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth trilogy), Kazuo Ishiguro (The Buried Giant), and Zoe Gilbert (Folk).

Collection of essays on various aspects of world-building as applied to SF and fantasy, some of them about authors I don’t know or don’t like, some about authors who I do know and like such as Tolkien. The standout for me was Cheryl Morgan’s piece on sex, which had me googling for information about hyena clitorises. You can get it here.

2) Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Colour, by Joy Sanchez-Taylor. Second sentence of third chapter:

The authors discussed in this chapter address this tension between peoples of color as “both dangerous and disposable” through the use of post-apocalyptic landscapes, one of the most recognizable tropes of science fiction. Science fiction and fantasy texts ranging from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) to screen-adapted popular works such as World War Z (2006) and The Hunger Games (2008–10) portray the end of the world as an unforgiving environment where only exceptional white humans can survive. As authors and scholars begin to consider what role race plays in the end-of-the-world scenario, contemporary authors of color are writing post-apocalyptic works that center the narrative voices of peoples of color. As Lavender III notes in the introduction to Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction (2014), in order to move forward to a more racially inclusive science fiction, authors and critics must “[lift] blacks, indigenous peoples, and Latinos out from the background of this historically white genre” (6). The works discussed in this chapter are a small sample of the contemporary voices of color emerging in post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Yet another firmly academic tome, but somehow this gelled for me in a way that none of the others did, looking at familiar sfnal themes and their links with historic racism, and providing me with a good reading list for future self-education. Lovely cover too. You can get it here.

1) Octothorpe Podcast, by John Coxon, Alison Scott, and Liz Batty. Second sentence of third 2021 episode:

John: So many times, Liz.

It would be astonishing if this does not win by a large margin. John, Alison and Liz have somehow caught the Zeitgeist, and Octothorpe has become compulsive listening for a lot of us. Also I vote on principle for anything that actually names me, and I’ve been referred to a couple of times in the margins (and even got two whole sentences into #45, between 35:20 and 35:40). So it gets my vote. You can listen to it here.

See you all at Eastercon, where I am tremendously honoured to be one of the Guests of, er, Honour, along with three much better-known and more talented people.

BSFA Award: Best Novel

Advance warning: I only had time to read the Best Novel, Best Short Story and Best Non-Fiction categories this year, so there will be no write-up here of the BSFA Award shortlist in the Best Book for Younger readers category. I simply did not have time, and I wonder about the wisdom of adding another full category of books to a fairly short window for reading the shortlist between announcement and deadline. I’m also conscious that I’m writing this and tomorrow’s post on Best Non-Fiction in a bit of a rush, which is not ideal and means I am not doing any of the nominees justice. Anyway, we shall see. (I have previously written up Best Art and Best Short Fiction.)

6) Shards of Earth, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Vulture God erupted out of unspace, close enough to set Roshu’s traffic control systems complaining, and Idris began bootstrapping the ship’s systems and waking the others. Roshu wasn’t his favourite place in the galaxy, frankly.

Dismayed to admit that I found this very tough going, and I have generally really liked Tchaikovsky’s work before. I think I was reading it during a particularly busy week at work, and my concentration wasn’t up to it. You’ll probably enjoy it more than I did. You can get it here.

5) Skyward Inn, by Aliya Whiteley. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Despite all this, Fosse had known he would return to the farm. There was Geography on the timetable before break, and that sense in the air that he was ready for something, some change, that he wanted to find for himself. He had been told not to return, and yet he needed to understand how the man, the stranger, could have taken that farm away from him so easily.

Again I think my concentration was challenged when reading this, apparently drawing on Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, which I have not read. You can get it here.

4) Purgatory Mount, by Adam Roberts. Second paragraph of third chapter:

The drive took a real long time, and he thought: Double-uh-oh.

I don’t always get on with Roberts’ fiction (I’ve always found him very pleasant in person) but I largely enjoyed this one – except that I could not work out the link between the main story and the framing narrative until it was explained in the epilogue. You can get it here.

3) The Green Man’s Challenge, by Juliet E. McKenna. Second paragraph of third chapter:

I walked over to Fin’s Toyota as she was getting out. Her white-blonde hair was quite a lot longer than I was expecting. Other than that, she looked the same as always: average height, average build, and as far as I’m concerned, absolutely gorgeous in jeans and a cream sweater. We stood looking at each other for an awkward moment. I wanted to kiss her, but that probably wasn’t sensible these days. She was making no move to get closer to me.

Here on the other hand I felt a lot more comfortable with the story, a solid intrusive fantasy with a bit of romance on the side. You can get it here.

2) A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine. Second paragraph of third chapter:

(Three months ago, even if she’d somehow reached this exalted position in the Ministry, complete with her own tiny office with a tiny window only one floor down from the Minister herself, Three Seagrass would have been asleep in her house, and missed the message entirely. There: she’d justified clinical-grade insomnia as a meritorious action, one which would enable her to deal with a problem before anyone else awoke; that was half her work done for the day, surely.)

As previously reported, I hugely enjoyed it; horribly lethal alien incursions, grand sweeping palace politics, and a smart kid and a fish-out-of-water diplomat who separately try to save the day. You can get it here.

1) Blackthorn Winter, by Liz Williams. Second paragraph of third chapter:

Serena, fellow list-maker, had once asked her why she didn’t just put them on a tablet or her phone, but Bee preferred paper and pen. It made it easier for her to keep track. She tried not to list things that she had already done, to make the list look more accomplished, but often failed. Now, she took the pen and drew a firm line through church meeting. Because that was about to happen and soon Bee would be on her way out into the wet cold of the night and down the lane and into the meeting room which joined onto Hornmoon church. It was a meeting about the Christmas flowers because Bee, in an unguarded moment, had offered to become a church warden.

Sequel to Comet Weather, which I also really enjoyed last year. Lovely liminal contemporary fantasy, with lots of Doctor Who references as well. Get it here.

December 2015 books, and 2015 reading roundup

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.

My one trip that month was to visit my employers’ headquarters in Washington DC, a first visit to the mothership a year or so after I had got hired (postponed from October when a client assignment to Geneva had killed my plans to include CapClave in the trip). I also had a day in New York.

Back in Brussels, someone took a nice shot of me at the office party (I have no idea who is behind me).

I also managed to get a decent Christmas picture of all three kids.

With the transatlantic flight, I read 29 books that month.

Non-fiction: 2 (Year end 47)
When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson
Rave and Let Die: The SF and Fantasy of 2014, by Adam Roberts

Poetry: 1 (Year end 1)
The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (Year end 42)
Between the Acts, by Virginia Woolf
The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, ed. Dennis Pepper

SF (non-Who): 18 (Year end 130)
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 3, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Keeping it Real, by Justina Robson
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
Sunset Mantle, by Alter S. Reiss
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
The Reign of Wizardry, by Jack Williamson
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 4, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Fattypuffs and Thinifers, by Andre Maurois
Moon Over Soho, by Ben Aaronovitch
Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss
Captain Future and the Space Emperor, by Edmond Hamilton
The Last Man, by Alfred Noyes
Helliconia Summer, by Brian Aldiss
The Just City, by Jo Walton
Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente
Helliconia Winter, by Brian Aldiss
Jews vs Zombies, ed. Rebecca Levene and Lavie Tidhar

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (Year end 43)
Instruments of Darkness, by Gary Russell
The Gallifrey Chronicles, by Lance Parkin
The Medusa Effect, by Justin Richards
Doctor Who: Big Bang Generation, by Gary Russell


Comics: 2 (Year end 18)
Hark, A Vagrant!, by Kate Beaton
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer, by Sydney Padua

~7,500 pages (Year end 80,100)
10/29 by women (Year end 86/290) – Robinson, Bryce, Woolf, Robson, Okorafor, Valente, Walton, Levene, Beaton, Padua
3/29 by PoC (YTD 20/290) – Wilson, Okorafor, Padua

2015 Books Roundup

Total books: 290, precisely one less than the previous year’s 291; however 24 of these were dives into the first 50 pages of Clarke nominees that I knew were unlikely to win or be shortlisted. The fifth highest of the years I have been counting, but I have only passed that total in one subsequent year (last year, 2021).

Total page count: ~80,100, sixth highest of the years I have been counting, higher than any year since.

86 (30%) by women, the highest to date, since exceeded in both numbers and % in 2018, 2019 and 2021, and in % only in 2016.
20 (7%) by PoC, highest to date, since exceeded on both counts in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, and in % only in 2017.

Most books by a single author:
6 by Justin Richards (4), who also topped my 2014 tally.

Science Fiction (130)

Top SF books of the year:
Collectively the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, especially the winner, Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel (get it here)

Honourable mentions:
The Affirmation, by Christopher Priest (review; get it here)
Kushiel’s Justice, by Jacqueline Carey (review; get it here)

Enjoyed rereading:
, by Brian Aldiss (review; get it here)
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick (review; get it here)

The one you haven’t heard of:
The Last Man, by Alfred Noyes (review; get it here)

The one to avoid:
The Wonder City of Oz, by John R. Neill (review; get it here)

Non-Fiction (47)

Top non-fiction book of the year:
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin (review; get it here)

Letters to Tiptree, eds Alissa Krasnostein and Alexandra Pierce (review; get it here)
Selected Essays, by Virginia Woolf (review; get it here)

The one you haven’t heard of: 
Martial Power and Elizabethan Political Culture, by Rory Rapple (review; get it here)

The one to avoid:
Wisdom from my Internet, by Michael Z. Williamson (review; get it here)

Doctor Who (43, 54 counting non-fiction and comics)

Best Who book read in 2015: 
City of Death, by Douglas Adams and James Goss (review; get it here)

Runner-up (and re-read): 
Walking to Babylon, by Kate Orman (review; get it here)

Best Whovian non-fiction:
Companion Piece: Women Celebrate the Humans, Aliens and Tin Dogs of Doctor Who, eds. L.M. Myles and Liz Barr (review; get it here)

The two that even dedicated Whovians have not heard of: 
Doctor Who and the Vortex Crystal and Doctor Who and the Rebel’s Gamble, both by William H. Keith, Jr (review; get them here and here)

The one to avoid:
I did not keep good notes so will be charitable.

Non-genre Fiction (42)

Best non-sff fiction read in 2015: 
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (review; get it here)

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro (review; get it here)

Welcome rereads: 
Ulysses, by James Joyce (review; get it here)
Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo (review; get it here)

The one you haven’t heard of: 
The Twenty-two Letters, by Clive King (review; get it here)

The one to avoid:
The Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt (review; get it here)

Comics (19)

Best graphic stories read in 2015: 
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud (review; get it here)
The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, by Sydney Padua (review; get it here)

The one you haven’t heard of: 
De Tweede Kus, by Conz (review; get it here)

The one to avoid:
Boerke Bijbel, by Pieter de Poortere (review; get it here)

Poetry (just 1 but I enjoyed it)

The Whole and Rain-domed Universe, by Colette Bryce (review; get it here)

Worst Book of the Year

Wisdom from my Internet, by Michael Z. Williamson, possibly the worst book I have read this century

Best Book(s) of the year

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

Other Books of the Year:

2003 (2 months): The Separation, by Christopher Priest.
2004The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread).
– Best new read: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, by Claire Tomalin
2005The Island at the Centre of the World, by Russell Shorto
2006Lost 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
2007Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
2008The 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
2009Hamlet, 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)
2010The Bloody Sunday Report, by Lord Savile et al.
2011The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon (started in 2009!)
2012The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
2013A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf
2014: Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
2015: See above
2016Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot
2017Common People: The History of an English Family, by Alison Light
2018Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
2019Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
2020From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull
2021: Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins.

My younger daughter and Magritte

Someone asked after reading about B and the king if I ever write blog posts about U, our other daughter. Well, I do sometimes; and in fact she and I had our own cultural excursion last weekend, when I had the sudden impulse to visit the Magritte Museum in central Brussels. I admit that I am not a massive Magritte fan, but it’s one of those things that as a Belgian citizen working in the capital I feel I ought to have done.

It’s interesting enough. Some of his best known works are elsewhere, of course. I missed my chance to see The Treachery of Images in Los Angeles earlier this year. The Son of Man is in a private collection. Golconda is in Houston. A dozen are in MOMA in New York.

But the Brussels museum does put him in context, and in particular you appreciate how important his wife Georgette Berger was to him. It’s also interesting to see the commercial art that he produced – and one can sense the frustration that drove him to surrealism.

One of the advantages of taking U is that she gets in at a substantial discount, and I get in at a similar discount as her companion. She gets a brisk walk looking at confusing but stimulating things, and I don’t feel I have to spend ages in every room because she doesn’t feel I should spend too long in any room either. But she did gracefully pose for me at a couple of pictures.

U enjoying “Ceci continue de ne pas être une pipe“, a drawing from 1952
which is obviously a sequel to “The Treachery of Images” (1930)
U, the green Android and “The Unexpected Answer” (1932), probably the best known in the collection.

Having tolerated me snapping her in front of those two, in the next room she spotted one that she really liked and stood beside it waiting for me to photograph her and the Android. When we got home she insisted on looking at the picture I had taken. What was going through her mind? Did the two masked men and the candlestick with three female heads resonate for her somehow? Anyway, here she is with Magritte’s Intelligence (1954).

I bought her a mug with Magritte’s clouds on, and we went home.

Saturday reading

Hive Monkey, by Gareth L. Powell
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis (a chapter a week)
The Ultimate Foe, by James Cooray Smith
Worlds Apart: Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Francesca T Barbini

Last books finished
Doctor Who: The Ultimate Foe, by Pip and Jane Baker
Purgatory Mount, by Adam Roberts
Air, by Geoff Ryman
Diverse Futures: Science Fiction and Authors of Colour, by Joy Sanchez-Taylor

Next books
Valley of Lights, by Steve Gallagher
Hergé, Son of Tintin, by Benoît Peeters

Northern Ireland Assembly elections 2022: a preview

2017 Assembly results map
2017 Assembly election results in each constituency

Northern Ireland elects a new Assembly on 5 May, and as usual I have been crunching some numbers to establish a baseline of expectations – basically the results which would not be surprising, given the current polling which has the DUP in particular down a bit from last time. Given that there is more movement on the Unionist side, I’m taking the 18 seats in order from most to least Unionist, Lagan Valley to West Belfast. The headings in each case link to my website, where there is a lot more information.

Edited to add, after the election: Without changing my original text, I’ve noted the results in each seat.

Lagan Valley

The SDLP’s seat, won with UUP transfers after starting from barely half a quota in 2017, is on paper the most vulnerable, and on recent performance Alliance is best placed to pick it up. The DUP’s decision to run only two candidates in a constituency where their third was the runner-up in 2017 is telling. With only five Unionist candidates and almost four Unionist quotas, one cannot exclude a lucky day for the second UUP runner or for the TUV.

What happened: Alliance gained from the SDLP.

North Down

In the most volatile constituency in Northern Ireland, Alliance is strongly placed to gain a seat based on recent performance; each of the other three parties represented here is potentially vulnerable, with the DUP facing the added complication of their former member and sitting MLA Alex Easton standing as an independent candidate.

What happened: Alliance gained from the Greens, and the DUP did indeed lose their seat to Alex Easton.


It’s very difficult to see the DUP holding all three seats here, even in a good year (and this probably won’t be a good year). On recent showings, Alliance are better placed than the UUP to pick up; but the SDLP, who have been runners-up here in all six Assembly elections since the Good Friday Agreement, cannot be ruled out.

What happened: Alliance gained from the DUP.

East Antrim

All five men elected here in 2017 are standing again, and the likeliest outcome is no change. But this is the constituency where the TUV have the best prospects of a gain, which could come from either of the other Unionist parties. If Alliance can balance two candidates ahead of SF, they too have a chance; as indeed do SF, in theory, if they can keep comfortably ahead of the trailing Alliance candidate and pull in transfers.

What happened: Alliance gained from the UUP.

East Belfast

The status quo is the most likely outcome in terms of seats – 2 DUP, 2 Alliance and 1 UUP; another constituency where the third DUP candidate was runner-up in 2017, but they are only running two this year. One cannot exclude a successful challenge from TUV or PUP, given the UUP’s historical weakness here and the DUP’s current low poll ratings. Alliance are some way off a third quota, even with all available Nationalist transfers, and anyway have only two candidates.

What happened: No change.

North Antrim

All five men elected in 2017 are standing again. Alliance will be hopeful of a gain here, but the Unionist vote remains close to four quotas and Sinn Fein’s seat looks solid enough. Within Unionism, the DUP vote would have to fall pretty far, with poor balancing, for either the UUP or TUV to threaten their second seat.

What happened: Alliance gained from the DUP, whose balancing was good but their vote fell.

South Antrim

Another seat where the third DUP candidate was runner-up in 2017, but they are only running two this time. Both Alliance and SF look secure; with only three Unionist seats, the UUP must feel that they are in with a chance of picking up the third.

What happened: No change.

Upper Bann

The SDLP were fortunate to get UUP and Alliance transfers in 2017, securing the second Nationalist seat despite SF starting with almost three times as many votes. Polling shows SF down a bit more than the SDLP, so the status quo is mildly more likely than not to prevail on the Nationalist side. A good day for the UUP would see them take the DUP seat here. Alliance are a bit further behind, but not all that far.

What happened: Alliance gained from the SDLP.

East Londonderry

The SDLP’s 2017 performance here was poor, and hit by defection, yet they still managed to get the second Nationalist seat despite starting far behind SF. If the polls are right, and the SDLP’s rating is stable with SF down a bit, the same result on the Nationalist side is more likely than not. Alliance must have hopes of a gain here; but has Claire Sugden already got those votes? The DUP vote would have to fall quite a long way for their second seat to be under threat.

What happened: No change.

North Belfast

It’s difficult to see a third Unionist seat here, and also difficult to see another Unionist emerging to challenge the DUP for their second seat – in 2017, the DUP had just under two quotas, but their nearest rivals, the UUP, less than a third of one. Alliance expect to challenge strongly, but all three Nationalists look reasonably secure, with perhaps the SDLP least so.

What happened: Alliance gained from the SDLP.

Fermanagh & South Tyrone

SF were very lucky to get the third Nationalist seat in 2017, and the SDLP should expect to regain it if they are to make any headway anywhere at all in the election. The UUP were fortune to pick up the second Unionist seat in 2017, but indications are that this will be a better year for them, so the seat split between parties on the Unionist side is likely to remain the same. Both the DUP and UUP are running strong second candidates along with their incumbents, though, so a change of personnel is distinctly possible.

What happened: No change.

South Belfast

This is the only constituency with MLAs from five different parties; will that continue?  On the 2019 local election results, Alliance could hope for a gain (most likely from the Greens); on the 2019 Westminster results, the SDLP could say the same. In 2017 the DUP’s second candidate (Emma Little-Pengelly, who was later the local MP from 2017 to 2019) was the runner-up behind her running-mate, Christopher Stalford; this year they are running only one candidate, Edwin Poots, who was briefly the party leader in 2021 and transferred here from Lagan Valley after Stalford’s sudden death in 2022.

What happened: Alliance gained from the Greens.

West Tyrone

Unionists had a generally bad year in 2017, and this is one of the three key constituencies in the West where we’ll see if that was a blip or a trend. If it was a blip, the UUP should have a chance of picking up one of SF’s three seats; if it was a trend, there will be no change.

What happened: No change.

Newry and Armagh

The UUP must have a decent chance at taking the DUP seat. Unionists had a generally bad year in 2017, and this is another of the three key constituencies in the West where we’ll see if that was a blip or a trend. If it was a blip, the UUP will gain from SF rather than from the DUP; if it was a trend, they won’t.

What happened: No change.

Mid Ulster

Again, Unionists had a generally bad year in 2017, and this is the third of the three key constituencies in the West where we’ll see if that was a blip or a trend. If it was a blip, the UUP should have a chance of picking up, either from the SDLP or one of SF’s three seats; if it was a trend, there will be no change.

What happened: No change.

South Down

Only two incumbents are standing for re-election, the lowest of any constituency. Alliance, runners up here last time, will be challenging for a seat; both the SDLP and SF are closer to their second quota than Alliance are to their first, but accidents can happen… The Unionist side is messy too, with both DUP and UUP having had certain local difficulties. There is only one Unionist seat, but it’s not necessarily the DUP’s.

What happened: Alliance gained from the SDLP.


No change is the most likely outcome. The Unionist vote is slowly crumbling here, hovering around a quota, but it would be a very bad year for Unionists to lose it. The UUP are talking up their chances of taking the DUP seat, but I don’t see it on the previous numbers. On the Nationalist side, SF have a stronger starting point, but their internal problems here will not help, and if PBP (or anyone else) were to make an unexpected breakthrough, it would more likely come from SF than the SDLP. The SDLP are running a third candidate, but that is rather optimistic.

What happened: No change.

West Belfast

4 seats out of 5 is an unusually good result in an STV election. SF have a reasonable chance of retaining all four. The Unionist vote is below a quota, and the SDLP far below that.

Overall, I think that Unionists are likely to continue to outnumber Nationalists, but that SF will pass the DUP as the largest single party. If that is the case, will the DUP accept the results and allow a government to be formed? We shall see.

What happened: No change.

Nine Lives: My Time As MI6’s Top Spy Inside al-Qaeda, by Aimen Dean

Second paragraph of third chapter:

When I landed, the haggard immigration officer, a man with red-rimmed eyes and a girth barely contained by his thick black belt, leafed through my passport.

Very interesting book, supposedly by a former jihadist who became a British agent within al-Qaeda; I’m sorry to start on a note of scepticism, but this is clearly a very tightly managed narrative, and in fact rather than pretend that he wrote the entire thing himself, his ghost-writers emerge from behind the veil in the afterword.

Even bearing in mind how closely the story has been crafted, it’s a very interesting tale; the author, who grew up between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, went to Bosnia as a teenage foreign fighters supporting (more or less) the Sarajevo government in the early 1990s, and graduated to the Philippines and then Pakistan and Afghanistan, before becoming sickened by the sheer nastiness of jihadism and turning himself in to the British – who promptly sent him back to serve as an asset within the system, where he continued until his cover was blown by a leak from Dick Cheney’s office.

Clearly the purpose of the narrative is twofold: to persuade potential jihadist recruits that there’s really not much in it for them, the rewards both spiritual and earthly being rather poor; and to persuade the wider global intelligence community that the British have still got what it takes. I’m largely in agreement with both propositions; given when and where I grew up, I am not a big fan of terrorism, and my sense is that British intelligence has been less badly hollowed out by the “reforms” of this century than the FCDO. At the same time, I am alert to being manipulated by the book’s authors.

The most interesting thing that I took from the book is just how limited the inner circle of international jihadist leadership is. The author keeps running up against the same people, sometimes many years apart; the core number of human resources is small, and has a tendency to become smaller through enemy action and deliberate self-sacrifice. This is the big difference with my own homeland, where political violence had wider and deeper roots on both sides of the community, and self-sacrifice was largely limited to prison protests. (Some people like to forget that the biggest terrorism campaign in Europe since the Second World War was waged by Christians against other Christians.)

Anyway, even with the caveats above, I found this well worth reading. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a non-white author. Next on that pile is The Right to Sex, by Amia Srinivasan.

Nine Lives

Hugo ballot: Goodreads/LibraryThing stats

The Hugo ballot is out! Congratulations to all of this year’s finalists.

I had a couple of days’ advance knowledge and prepared these tables of the finalists’ standings on Goodreads and LibraryThing; some of these numbers will have changed on GR and LT in the meantime.

Best Novel

  Goodreads   LibraryThing  
  reviewers av rating owners av rating
Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir 239,092 4.53 2,252 4.3
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan 22,276 3.96 525 4.07
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers 15,679 4.44 628 4.42
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine 13,345 4.37 512 4.18
A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark 9,601 4.15 462 3.95
Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki 6,184 4.14 279 4.16

All very highly rated, though with a clear leader.
Last year’s winner was third on this metric, but had the highest reader rating on both systems.
The 2020 winner was fourth on this metric, and had the second highest rating on Goodreads and joint third highest on LibraryThing.
The 2019 winner was third on this metric, had the second highest rating on Goodreads (again) and the second lowest on LibraryThing.
The 2018 winner was second on this metric and had the top ratings on both systems.
The 2017 winner was also second on this metric, had the third highest rating on Goodreads and the second highest on LibraryThing.
The 2016 winner was fifth on this metric, but had the top ratings on both systems.
The 2015 winner was fourth (out of five) on all counts.
The 2014 winner was third (out of five) on this metric (counting all the Wheel of Time as one) and in the middle-ish on ratings (depending on how you count the Wheel of Time)
The 2013 winner was top on both metrics (uniquely!) and third (out of five) in ratings on both systems.
The 2012 winner was last on both Goodreads owners and ratings, and had the lowest rating on Goodreads, but was ranked and rated third (out of five) on LibraryThing.
It’s clearly an imperfect indicator. The eventual winner was in the top half of the table in four of the last nine years, in the botto, half four times, and in the middle once.

Best Novella

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, by Becky Chambers22,0314.295814.23
Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire12,3673.823283.96
A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow12,9863.73024
Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard3,2293.511863.85
Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky4,0614.21144.03
The Past Is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente1,8254.181244.41

Again, all very highly rated, though again with a clear leader.
Last year’s winner was third on this metric, but had the highest LT rating and second highest GR rating.
The 2020 winner ranked top on this metric.
The 2019 winner was second on this metric but had top ratings from readers.
And I don’t seem to have done it previously.

Best Graphic Story or Comic

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
Lore Olympus, vol. 136,2484.433544.16
Monstress, vol. 6: The Vow1,6454.451264.22
Far Sector1,3764.29603.73
Once & Future, vol. 3: The Parliament of Magpies7414.17333.94
DIE, vol. 4: Bleed6724.18343.82
Strange Adventures6794.21183.7

A clear leader in ownership, but a different leader on user ratings.
Last year’s winner was third on this metric, third on GR ratings, but only fifth on LT ratings.
The 2020 winner was actually last on this metric, and had the second lowest ratings.
The 2019 winner was third and had the second highest ratings.

Best Related Work

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman9013.8514.38
Never Say You Can’t Survive, by Charlie Jane Anders4424.27574.63
Being Seen, by Elsa Sjunneson2214.55213.75
Dangerous Visions and New Worlds, by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre343.9126
The Complete Debarkle, by Camestros Felapton142
“How Twitter can ruin a life”, by Emily St. James (Vox, Jun 2021)

The last of these is not a standalone publication, and The Complete Debarkle clearly hasn’t hit the bookstore shelves. The LT reader rating for Never Say You Can’t Survive is the highest for any of these books. I don’t think I’ve done this for BRW before.

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

reviewersav ratingownersav rating
The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik37,9804.346124.25
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao267964.254614.13
Redemptor, by Jordan Ifueko53454.311174
Victories Greater Than Death, by Charlie Jane Anders 19873.552123.66
A Snake Falls to Earth, by Darcie Little Badger14504.121013.55
Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer5384.18634.07

Again, a clear leader.
Last year’s winner was third on this metric and fourth on both GR and LT ratings.
The 2020 winner had the second lowest place on the metric, and among Goodreads reviewers; but LibraryThing readers ranked it top.
I skipped this category in 2019.
The 2018 YA Award winner was top on the metric, and among Goodreads reviewers, but only rated fifth out of six by LibraryThing users.

Elles font l’abstraction/Women in Abstraction, by Christine Macel and Laure Chavelot

Third entry in the book:

En 1895, Alice Essington Nelson, une artiste anglaise méconnue adepte de spiritualisme, trouve dans l’art abstrait un moyen d’exprimer sa croyance dans l’au-delà. L’unique oeuvre d’Essington Nelson à avoir survécu est une énigme. Le titre Shewing the Influence of Osiris pourrais désigner Osiris comme la force qui l’inspire. Essington Nelson décrit sa technique comme automatique, suggérant par-là que ses aptitudes spirites ou parapsychiques orientent son processus créatif.
In 1895, Alice Essington Nelson, a little-known English artist and spiritualist, found in abstract art a means of expressing her belief in the beyond. Her only surviving work is an enigma. The title Shewing the Influence of Osiris might indicate Osiris as its inspiration. Essington Nelson described her technique as automatic, suggesting that her spiritualist or parapsychic gifts directed her creative process.

This was the souvenir book from the exhibition of women abstract artists that F and I went to in the Pompidou Centre in Paris last summer, listing more than fifty whose works were on display. Most of them are better known than Alice Essington Nelson; I said at the time that I’d have happily paid the entrance fee just to see Bridget Riley’s Tremor:


Not to mention Louise Bourgeois’ work.


The advantage of a book like this is that you can go back and have a longer look at some of the artists that tired feet maybe stopped you from properly appreciating in the exhibition. So for instance I picked up now on Marlow Moss, whose technique was ripped off by Mondriaan:

or Janet Sobel, who ended up a neighbour of my grandmother’s family in Plainfield, New Jersey, her drip painting style having been ripped off by Jackson Pollock:

And it inspired me also to go back and have another look at the video elements, especially Judy Chicago’s Women in Smoke.

The other thing that struck me is how I have changed. As a kid I found that abstract art in general left me baffled and often scornful; I preferred my art to actually look like something. Now I very much appreciate form for its own sake, and like to think that I am much more open to whatever message the work is trying to convey. There’s still some rubbish out there, but it’s usually worth asking what is intended.

You can probably get it here.

November 2015 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 had two nice trips with Anne that month, first to Bruges, where I became fascinated by the portraits of Baron de Keverberg and his young English wife:

And then to Sofia, Bulgaria, where my former intern M married D, who I had introduced her to in the summer of 2013.

The celebrations unfortunately had to be downscaled at the last moment because it was the weekend of the Paris terrorist attacks, and D was the foreign minister of Bulgaria at the time. We returned to a locked down Brussels, where worse was to come a few months later.

This was also the month that I formally took on the role of Hugo Administrator for 2017, with Colette Fozard as my deputy. And in London for a work trip, I looked at Charles Babbage’s brain and Jonathan Swift’s cranial cavity in the Hunterian Museum.

I read 33 books that month (though in a couple of cases these were short story collections where I read only the ones from 1940).

Non-fiction: 2 (YTD 45)
The Battle for Gaul, by Julius Caesar
Bits of Me are Falling Apart, by William Leith

Fiction (non-sf): 8 (YTD 40)
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree, by Ernest Bramah
The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing
Sleepyhead, by Mark Billingham
The Invention of Happiness, by Brian W. Aldiss
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
Babes in a Darkling Wood, by H.G. Wells
Waiting for Elizabeth, by Joan Rosier-Jones

SF (non-Who): 16 (YTD 112)
The Ultimate Egoist, by Theodore Sturgeon (1940 stories only)
Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories vol 2, eds. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson
The Clock Strikes Twelve And Other Stories, by H. Russell Wakefield
The Past Through Tomorrow, by Robert A. Heinlein (1940 stories only)
Kallocain, by Karin Boye
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares
The Ill-Made Knight, by T.H. White
Somewhere! / هُناك , by Ibraheem Abbas
A Million Years to Conquer, by Henry Kuttner
Monkey Planet, by Pierre Boulle
Twice in Time, by Manly Wade Wellman
North Wind, by Gwyneth Jones
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 1, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 2, ed. von Dimpleheimer
The Wonder City of Oz, by John R. Neill

Doctor Who, etc: 4 (YTD 39)
The Quantum Archangel, by Craig Hinton
To the Slaughter, by Steve Cole
Oblivion, by Dave Stone
[Doctor Who: The Glamour Chronicles] Deep Time, by Trevor Baxendale

Comics : 3 (YTD 16)
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud
Saga Volume 4, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
De Tweede Kus, by Conz

~8,600 pages (YTD 72,600)
6/33 by women (YTD 76/261) – Munro, Lessing, Rosier-Jones, Boye, Jones, Staples
2/33 by PoC (YTD 17/261) – Abbas, Staples

The best this month were Alice Munro’s collection Too Much Happiness, which you can get here; Scott McCloud’s graphic novel The Sculptor, which you can get here; and (a reread) the third part of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which you can get here.

On the other hand, The Wonder City of Oz has been justly forgotten. You can get it here (for a price).

A Hugo voting scandal from 1960

I am grateful to David Langford for putting me on the track of an open letter from Dirce S. Archer, the Chair of Pittcon, the 1960 Worldcon, addressing allegations about the 1960 Hugos. Specifically the letter denies allegations that votes for Fanac, one of the Best Fanzine finalists, had been destroyed; but then goes on to state that 78 identical ballots from England had been disqualified. The letter was published in the April 1962 issue of the fanzine Axe, edited by Larry and Noreen Shaw, which is why Dave flagged it up, as it’s exactly 60 years ago this month.


It has been reported to me that a certain individual is now claiming that FANAC won PITTCON’s fanzine Hugo, and that he and Lynn Hickmanwitnessed” an occasion when a stack of ballots naming FANAC were destroyed “on the grounds that the handwriting is similar”. This story, the last in a series of vengeful attacks upon our group, is entirely and totally false and with no basis whatsoever.

1) I have never met this man to my knowledge and do not even know what he looks like.

2) Lynn Hickman was not in Pittsburgh at any time during the year prior to the convention and, since ballots must be counted weeks before a convention so Hugo plates can be engraved, he could not have been present at a ballot counting session. Lynn’s character is such that it is not even necessary to check as to whether he had any part in this malicious gossip. [While we agree entirely about Lynn’s character, a convenient opportunity allowed us to check with him, and he confirms these statements completely.-Larry & Noreen Shaw]

3) Even PITTCON committee members’ wives and husbands were excluded at ballot counting sessions–as at all business meetings. It would be ridiculous to share knowledge of the most carefully guarded secret of any convention, the ballot results, with outsiders!

4) FANAC, although tops in nominations, did not win a Hugo. In fact until the last seven days before the deadline SF TIMES was leading and we expected it to win. In the last seven days four of the five nominees changed places. [NW adds: the actual winner was Cry of the Nameless, edited by F. M. Busby, Elinor Busby, Burnett Toskey and Wally Weber.]

PITTCON did toss out some nominations but with excellent reason. We received 78 ballots–packaged, not sent separately–each nominating the same novel, short story and publisher, with an accompanying’ letter saying, “These are all bona fide nominations, as are attested by the individual names and addresses”. They nominated a single author (author of the novel and short story) totally unknown to our committee, whose stories appeared in an obscure British publication (not Nova Publications) which was nominated for best magazine.

Surely no one could expect us to believe that one English village of something under 7,000 population contains upwards of 60 bona fide fans, many with identical handwriting, seven with identical addresses and last name (the author’s) and ALL with identical nominations!

It was our belief that duty required we discard these obvious attempts to stuff the ballot box. We would do the same thing again under such circumstances.

I trust, for his own sake, the fertile imagination of this individual will be kept under control in the future. We deplore legal action and have ignored previous slander, but there is a point of no return in these matters. We could and would take steps.

Dirce S. Archer
Chairman, PITTCON

In those days the Hugos were much less formalised than they are now. It was only the seventh time that they had been run; it was only the second time that there had been a nominating round (introduced in 1959); non-members could both nominate and vote. Here is the 1960 nominating ballot:

“PITTCON” – 1960


We think the Detention Committee established the fairest and most practical basis for awarding the science fiction/fantasy world’s annual marks of achievement–the “Hugos,” named in honor of science fiction’s patron saint, Hugo Gernsback.

The 1960 “Hugos” will therefore be awarded for the best science fiction or fantasy books, stories and artwork published during 1959, or in a magazine bearing a 1959 date. This means that stories in the January 1959 issues are eligible, even though they were on the newsstands in 1958. By the same token, stories in the January 1960 issues are not eligible, even though they were on sale in 1959. The date on the issue determines a magazine’s eligibility; the copyright date decides for hardbound and paperback books.

Voting will take place in two steps. Fandom as a whole is asked to nominate its choice in each of the six categories for which “Hugos” will be awarded. Use the ballot on this page or make up your own. You can list 1st and 2nd choices in each category, and the vote will be weighted accordingly. All nominations must be postmarked on or before May 1, 1960.

The stories, artists, and magazines getting the greatest number of nominations will be listed on a second Awards Ballot. Your votes on that ballot determine who gets the “Hugos,” If there is no majority in any category, there will be no award for that category.

Interesting to note that dating eligibility questions were already an issue back then. Also interesting that only two nominations in each category were allowed. I wonder what the weighting system was between first and second preferences? And what does ”no majority” mean?

Going back to the 78 disallowed ballots, Rob Hansen reports that they would all have benefitted Lionel Fanthorpe, then a 25-year-old teacher, now a retired vicar and author of 250 books. In 1959, according to ISFDB, he had published 12 novels and 20 shorter pieces, four of each under the name “R.L. Fanthorpe” and the rest under various pseudonyms; it’s not known which of these were featured on the controversial ballots. Most of his short fiction was published in Supernatural Stories, edited by “John S. Manning” (a pseudonym for Sam Assael and Maurice Nahum), so presumably that was the magazine named on the 78 ballots. (Please don’t anyone take this as an excuse to hassle the 87-year-old Rev. Fanthorpe about events of six decades ago; there is no evidence that he himself was directly involved.)

The result was that the rules were changed to restrict Hugo voting to members of the seated Worldcon, from 1961 onwards. Nominating, however, remained open to all until the late 1970s, when it too was restricted to the members of the seated Worldcon; that has since been expanded to include members of the previous Worldcon, and at one point also members of the following year’s Worldcon. Poul Anderson translated L. Sprague de Camp’s record of the 1960 WSFS Business Meeting discussion into a fictional dialect of English all of whose words are derived from Germanic roots:

 __Polling for Meeds__: The workly polling for morrowish “Hugin” meeds, but not outnamings for the meeds, shall be inheld to betaled dealsmen of the World Knowledge Sagas Forgathering at which the meeds will be made. (LOOK WELL: This forsetting is binding on the 1961 Forgathering. It was eyesightly the hencelook of the foresetting that “betaled deals-men” be bethought those who have betaled the –D–2.00 waybefore inwriting gild — –D–1.00 in the falling of overseas dealsmen. Otherwise the polling could not find stead save at the Forgathering itself, and it would be unmightly for the meeds to be readied and incut in time for forth-giving.)

As a Hugo Administrator I myself haven’t seen anything quite on that scale, but if and when it should ever happen to come up, I would allow one of the duplicate nominations to stand – the WSFS Constitution states clearly that “No person may cast more than one vote on any issue or more than one ballot in any election”, but doesn’t allow administrators to punitively disallow all of them.

The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 9: Schoonhoven Castle, Aarschot (and Roland Rens)

My quest to find the remaining stucco ceilings of the 17th century artist Jan Christian Hansche is reaching a conclusion. (The story so far: Park Abbey in Leuven; the Chateau de Modave near Namur; the ones that have been destroyed in Germany; the Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brussels; the Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namur; the Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp; two ceilings in Gent; the Sablon in Brussels and Beaulieu Castle in Machelen.)

Yesterday I ventured a little bit to the north of Leuven, to visit Schoonhoven Castle near Aarschot. The castle is the private property of Dr S and Mrs B, who bought it as a ruin in the 1990s and have restored it to a state of glory. Most of the building dates from the 18th century, but the 17th century chapel survived, and the stucco ceiling by Hansche, dated to 1671, has been partially reconstructed by Dr S and Mrs B.

Dr S and Mrs B in the chapel

Sadly, it is the least extensive of any of the surviving Hansche works that I have found. In this panoramic shot of the chapel, you can see the three gilded monograms immediately above the altar:

And here is a closer shot – from left to right, there is the Marian monogram IXXR (actually MAR written together), the standard IHS for her son, and a curious third monogram: a crowned combination of S and, I think, L.

I can’t agree with Marc Van Vaeck who thinks it is a St Joseph monogram; the other letter is clearly an L, not a J, and St Joseph is not usually crowned. The work was commissioned by Charles-Philippe d’Eynatten / Karel-Filips van Eynatten, none of whose initials are S or L in French or in Dutch. S could of course be for Schoonhoven, the name of the castle itself, but the L still baffles me. Charles-Philippe did not marry, and his siblings were Philippe-Gilles, Catherine, Marie-Madeleine and Anna Maria, none of whom has either of the right initials.

We can compare the other two monograms to their equivalents in Hansche’s earlier ceiling in Antwerp. The iconography of the pierced heart is familiar.

There’s also a splendid ceiling lantern, which is however difficult to photograph.

Dr S and Mrs B have only been able to restore the altar end of the chapel. In the attic they have several more pieces of Hansche stucco which they found literally lying on the floor, having fallen off the ceiling, which they have not yet been able to put back – the necessary infrastructure just isn’t there. They kindly allowed me to look at the fragments, which are laid out next to a rather alarming Jesus from a later date, who has also been removed from the chapel. This is literally the closest I have physically got to Hansche’s work, since it’s usually way up high.

Marc Van Vaeck says that originally there were also two scenes of the life of the Holy Family here, one of which was similar to the one Hansche had done a couple of years earlier in Franc-Waret; no trace remains of them. It’s awfully sad that this beautiful art was allowed to decay, but I’m glad that what remains is in the loving hands of Dr S and Mrs B.

I went to nearby Aarschot to buy lunch, and came across two striking modern sculptures there, both by local artist Roland Rens. First is a 1995 tribute to the Grenadier Guards who liberated the town in 1944:

And also the Demerwachter, a mythic figure monitoring the River Demer, and not really looking like he enjoys the assignment:

So, that’s one more Hansche ceiling ticked off my list. I have booked to visit the last surviving Hansche ceiling in Belgium, at the Kasteel van Horst, on 24 April; and I’ve also found a reference suggesting that there is some of his work at Boxmeer Castle in the Netherlands, near to the lost works at Kleve and Wesel, and hope to visit there on 1 May. The quest is the quest!