October books

A couple of tweaks here. First I think I have finally cracked the secret of how to include the book covers neatly in each of the thematic sections. Second, I’ve revised the “Coming next” section to include the coming month’s Doctor Who-related reading first, and then the books acquired in 2016, followed by the rest of the Reading Order in sequence. As always, this is for my own records more than anything else.

Non-fiction 7 (YTD 83)
Doctor Who: A British Alien?
, by Danny Nicol
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson (did not finish)
Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup
The Face of Evil, by Thomas L Rodebaugh
Love and Monsters, by Niki Haringsma
Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster
The Bordley and Belt Families, Based on Letters Written by Family Members, assembled and annotated by Edward Wickersham Hoffman

Plays 1
Juicy and Delicious
, by Lucy Alibar

SF 12 (YTD 89)
δ1
Empire Of Sand
, by Tasha Suri
Complete Short Stories: the 1950s, by Brian Aldiss
ε1
ζ1
La Femme
, ed. Ian Whates
η1
Goliath
, by Tochi Onyebuchi
θ1
ι1
κ1
λ1
 (did not finish)
  

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 28)
Lineage
, ed. Shaun Russell
Doctor Who and the Face of Evil, by Terrance Dicks

Comics 2 (YTD 16)
Voorbij de grenzen van de ernst
, by Kamagurka
Weapons of Past Destruction, by Cavan Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachel Stott and Anand Setyawan

6,500 pages (YTD 62,000)
7/24 (YTD 91/236) by non-male writers (Alibar, Suri, ε1, ι1, κ1, λ1, Stott)
6/24 (YTD 33/236) by a non-white writer (Northrup, Suri, Onyebuchi. κ1, λ1, Setyawan)

381 books currently tagged “unread”, 13 more than last month, with award submissions continuing to come in

Reading now
The End of the Day
, by Claire North
The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough
Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez

Coming soon (perhaps) – new format for this list
Doctormania, by Cavan Scott et al
Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, by Jon Pertwee
The Danger Men, by Nick Walter
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon, by John Toon
Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Terrance Dicks
The Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Jonathan Morris
Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller
To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt
Faith in Politics, by John Bruton
A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg
Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen
Null States, by Malka Older
Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman
Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney
The Clockwise War, by Scott Gray
Song of Time, by Ian R. MacLeod
The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
“Schrödinger’s Kitten”, by George Alec Effinger
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
What If? by Randall Munroe
All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The World Set Free, by H.G. Wells
Neptune – Épisode 1, by Leo
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

September 2018 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.

The first weekend of the month saw the Oud-Heverlee dorpfeest, with this spirited rendition of “Billie Jean” by Mechelen band Selene’s Garden:

The following weekend saw the Open Monument Day, when F and I visited Tienen and met up with an old friend and her daughter at the ceremonial opening of the Three Tumuli of Grimde.

I had a work trip to Oxford and London, taking in the Asterix/Goscinny exhibition at the Jewish Museum:

Later in the month, I attended the dedication of Jo Cox Square in central Brussels, named after the murdered MP; both Jeremy Corbyn and his Brexit spokesman, who had been a close friend of Cox’s, were also there.

Finally, and much more happily, Anne and I ended the month with a trip to Riga to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

I read 20 books that month.

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 42)
Byzantium, by Judith Herrin
Who I Am, by Peter Townshend
About Time vol 8: 2007, Series 3, by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
Brewing Justice, by Daniel Jaffee
Riga: Berlitz Pocket Guide, by Martins Zaprauskis

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 24)
The Lost Weekend, by Charles L. Jackson
The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust

Poetry 1 (YTD 4)
Glory For Me, by MacKinlay Kantor

sf (non-Who): 9 (YTD 97)
Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson
Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson
Vurt, by Jeff Noon
Moominsummer Madness, by Tove Jansson
The Ginger Star, by Leigh Brackett
Moominpappa at Sea, by Tove Jansson
The Beast Master, by André Norton
Lord of Thunder, by André Norton

Putting Up Roots, by Charles Sheffield

Doctor Who, etc: 2 (YTD 29)
Doctor Who: The Visual Dictionary, by Neil Corry, Jacqueline Rayner, Andrew Darling, Kerrie Dougherty, David John and Simon Beecroft
Missing Adventures, ed. Rebecca Levene

Comics: 1 (YTD 22)
Dark Satanic Mills, by Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins and Marc Olivent

~5,200 pages (YTD ~57,300)
11/20 (YTD 90/221) by non-male writers (Herrin, Ail, Jansson x 4, Brackett, Norton x 2, Rayner/Dougherty, Levene)
0/20 (YTD 23/221) by PoC

The best new read of these was About Time vol 8 (get it here); the best rereads were The Guermantes Way (get it here), Moominland Midwinter (get it here) and Finn Family Moomintroll (get it here). I was not impressed by Dark Satanic Mills (get it here).

Saturday reading

Current
The End of the Day, by Claire North
The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough
κ1
Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez

Last books finished
θ1
Love and Monsters, by Niki Haringsma
Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster
ι1
The Bordley and Belt Families, Based on Letters Written by Family Members, assembled and annotated by Edward Wickersham Hoffman

Next books
Null States, by Malka Older
Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman

Farewell Jodie (and a family note on Rasputin)

So, the Thirteenth Doctor era came to an end last Sunday, with the slightly unexpected return of David Tennant to the title role. Jodie Whittaker and Chris Chibnall, the showrunner, were the subject of a lot of toxic commentary from the more entitled end of the fan base, much of which was undeserved. The worst of their thirty episodes were not as bad as, say, Kill the Moon, or Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, let alone The Twin Dilemma. But I am not alone in wishing that the high points had been higher and more numerous.

I have previously written up the first season, the second season, Revolution of the Daleks, and briefly noted Legend of the Sea Devils here. In terms of other media, there’s a great BBC audio story here, I’ve really enjoyed the Thirteenth Doctor comics that I have read (here, here, and here) and liked the books (The Witchfinders, The Wonderful Doctor of Oz, The Good Doctor, Molten Heart, Combat Magicks, Sophie Aldred’s At Childhood’s End); on the other hand the recent annuals have been very poor indeed (2019, 2020 and 2022).

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

This year’s New Year special, Eve of the Daleks, was a lot better. (And not just because it had not one but two Irish characters, played by Aisling Bea and Pauline McLynn.) The basic time loop story, where you get the chance to get it right next time, is a long-standing sf trope, as seen for instance in Groundhog Day and in Steven Moffat’s first published Who fiction, “Continuity Errors”.

I thought it worked well, it was not self-indulgent and showed what Chibnall could actually do on a good day. As previously noted, I also enjoyed the Easter special, Legend of the Sea Devils – I cannot claim it was Great Art but it was at least entertaining, and the cast were clearly having fun; Whittaker being allowed to be the kind of Doctor she wanted to be, perhaps.

And so to the end, with The Power of the Doctor and its mildly unexpected denouement.

Actually, no, before we get there, here’s a brief note about Rasputin, his murderer Dr Lazovert, and my grandmother.

Rasputin was a sinister monk who worked his way into the affections of the Tsarina/Empress of Russia. The Power of the Doctor featured Sacha Dhawan as the Master posing as Rasputin and playing Boney M. Those of us with older memories recall that one of Tom Baker’s biggest pre-Doctor Who film roles was in Nicholas and Alexandra as Rasputin.

Rasputin was murdered in December 1916 by a group of Russian nobles who resented his influence. The doctor who they recruited to administer poison to him was Stanislaus de Lazovert. (In fact the poison didn’t work and in the end they shot Rasputin.)

Four and a half years later, in summer 1921, my American grandmother (aged 22) was sharing an apartment in Paris with Colette Blanc, daughter of Irina Procopiu, a lady in waiting to Queen Marie of Romania.

My grandmother and Colette went on holiday in July 1921 to Sinaia, the Romanian royal family summer retreat, by train from Paris. Madam Procopiu asked an old friend of hers to keep an eye on the girls on the train.

My grandmother wrote, “Col and I were exhausted when we caught the 5.30 Orient Express at the Gare de Lyons on July 12th. Madame Procopiu had asked Dr Lazovert to keep an eye on us, and I think it was at dinner that first evening that he told us, with some pride, that he was one of the murderers of Rasputin. It sounds as though I were very stupid and ignorant, but I had no idea who Rasputin was; it seemed to me rather odd, though, that a murderer should have been asked to look after us.”

Dr Lazovert was of course a completely respectable member of the Russian exile community in Paris, involved in the Romanian oil trade. He lived to 1976 and is buried in Père-Lachaise. I doubt if my grandmother ever saw him again.

Anyway, putting all that aside, I really enjoyed The Power of the Doctor. The plot was still a bit rambling, but mostly it hung together well, and a lot was packed into it. The Master’s desire to transform himself into the Doctor is completely understandable, and knowing as we did that this was Jodie Whittaker’s last episode, there were all kinds of options for how the hero might escape; and I was satisfied by the ride.

We old school fans were of course watching it for the return of old favourites; we had been well prepared for Janet Fielding and Sophie Aldred as Tegan and Ace…

…and it wasn’t a massive surprise to see McGann, McCoy, Colin Baker, Davison and Bradley back again, or some of the other old companions. But I think there was a collective gasp from many of us as we realised that the chap sitting on the right in the final scene was none other than Russell Enoch, William Russell for stage purposes, Ian Chesterton in the very first episode in November 1963, and turning 98 next month (96 when the scene was filmed last year), beating Ysanne Churchman’s record as the oldest actor ever to be on the show and beating the world record for the gap between first and last appearances in the same role in any TV series.

I confess I was a little sorry that the Doctor and Yazz didn’t end up a bit more overtly sapphic, after the hints dropped in previous stories, but you can do a lot without saying a lot.

And the Fourteenth Doctor’s shock at the end paradoxically reassures us that we are in good hands again with Russell T. Davies, and indeed Disney, who can be expected to bring a lot more in terms of resources to the show. Roll on 2023.

Complete Short Stories: the 1950s, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third story (“Breathing Space”):

The younger man lay gasping in the deep dust. Wilms attempted to stand over him and then, too exhausted, sank down beside his late opponent.

One of the books that I got Brian Aldiss to autograph for me.

A collection that does exactly what it says on the tin: this is the sum of the short stories published by Brian Aldiss during the 1950s, his first full decade as a professional writer. I count 65 of them, about half of them republished (or even published) here for the first time. Several of my favourites from other collections are here – “Who Can Replace a Man?”, “Supercity”, the novella “Equator”; some of the new (to me) stories are more experimental than successful, but they are all really interesting illustrations of a talent working out what can be done and which corners of the envelope can be pushed. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who is not already interested in Aldiss, but I do think that Aldiss is very interesting! You can get it here.

This was both the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves, and my top unread book acquired in 2015. Next on the former list was La Femme, an anthology edited by Ian Whates, and next on the latter was The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson. I have read both in the time between finishing the Aldiss collection and publishing this review.

Empire Of Sand, by Tasha Suri

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Below her, echoing up from the central courtyard of her home, came the sound of a woman weeping.

I got this because the author and I were both guests of honour at this year’s Eastercon, but did not get around to reading it until now. We’d previously had brief communication when she was a finalist for the first Astounding Award in 2020, though I’m sorry to say that I did not get around to reading the extract from this novel included in that year’s voter packet (there was a global pandemic on, and some things slipped through the cracks).

It’s similar to the standard fantasy romance (arranged marriage which works out, against the odds, with both couples having magical powers), but there are a couple of very interesting twists. The fantasy world is based on Mughal India rather than medieval Europe, and that gives a whole new set of cultural references to play with. There’s court politics among both the empire where the protagonist is from and her husband’s people who are very culturally different. And the settings are vividly realised. Recommended. You can get it here.

This was the top SF novel on my unread pile. Next on that list is Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, which I have previously read but a very long time ago.

Weapons of Past Destruction, by Cavan Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachel Stott and Anand Setyawan

Second frame of third part:

Continuing to work through my stash of Doctor Who comics, here’s the first of the Titan Ninth Doctor stories, set between The Doctor Dances and Boom Town, featuring the full TARDIS crew of Nine, Rose and Jack in an adventure with Time War technology looted by an alien race. The plot is nicely twisty and the characterisation of the leads (which after all is the main attraction) is bang on. Definitely good fun.

There’s an actual YouTube trailer for the story:

You can get it here.

Voorbij de grenzen van de ernst, by Kamagurka (Luc Zeebroek)

Third frame of the book:

I foolishly got this collection of cartoons for F a couple of Christmases ago thinking that it might appeal to his sense of humour. It didn’t, and it didn’t really appeal to mine either. Most days I feel a close affinity with Belgium, my adopted land, but occasionally I run into bits of culture that I just don’t get. (The last of these was another collection of graphic art, Boerke bijbel.) The reflections on the life of the writer were wry and sharp, but the rest passed me by. You can get it here.

This was my top unread comic in a language other than English. Next up is the first of the new sequence by Leo, Neptune vol. 1.

August 2018 books

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

I spent most of the month on holiday in Northern Ireland. After the first day, the weather improved and we got around a fair bit. F and I visited Aras an Uachtaran.

Nicholas and his son standing in front of the Irish President's official residence

Anne is a fan of Helen Waddell, and we visited both her grave and her family home, hosted by her great-great-niece.

And caught up with relatives; here I am with the youngest of my first cousins, and watching my godson on the beach.

I had thoughts about walls in Belfast, and on the way home we visited Wroxeter.

With the holiday, I read 29 books that month.

Non-fiction: 7 (YTD 37)
The Politics of Climate Change, by Anthony Giddens
The Life of Our Lord, by Charles Dickens
Huawei Stories: Pioneers, ed. Tian Tao and Yin Zhifeng
Wroxeter Roman City, by Roger H. White
Fair Trade, by Laura T. Reynolds, Douglas L. Murray and John Wilkinson
Women and Power, by Mary Beard
Huawei Stories: Explorers, ed. Tian Tao and Yin Zhifeng

Fiction (non-sf): 3 (YTD 22)
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust
The Deer Hunter, by Eric Corder
Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively

sf (non-Who): 12 (YTD 88)
High-Rise, by J. G. Ballard
“Ill Met in Lankhmar”, by Fritz Leiber
The Region Between, by Harlan Ellison

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Anno Dracula – Dracula Cha Cha Cha, by Kim Newman
Missile Gap, by Charles Stross
Rare Unsigned Copy, by Simon Petrie
Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
The Laertian Gamble, by Robert Sheckley
Comet in Moominland, by Tove Jansson
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

Doctor Who, etc: 6 (YTD 27)
Now We Are Six Hundred, by James Goss, illustrated by Russell T. Davies
Doctor Who Files 7: The Daleks, by Justin Richards
Doctor Who Files 8: The Cybermen, by Justin Richards
Doctor Who Files 12: The TARDIS, by Justin Richards

Time Lord, by Ian Marsh and Peter Darvill-Evans
Nobody’s Children, by Kate Orman, Jonathan Blum and Philip Purser-Hallard

Comics: 1 (YTD 21)
Amoras deel 3: Krimson, by Marc Legendre and Charel Cambré

~5,000 pages (YTD ~52,100)
6/29 (YTD 79/201) by non-male writers (Reynolds, Beard, Lively, Waters, Jansson, Orman – as fas as I know Tian Tao and Yin Zhifeng are men)
2/29 (YTD 23/201) by PoC (Tian/Yin x2)

Three very good ones here, one of which was a reread:

You can skip the novelisation of The Deer Hunter, but if curious you can get it here.

Relay marathon at Laeken

We spent most of yesterday up at Laeken, in the northwest of Brussels, where a team of colleagues from my office were running a relay marathon – very kindly, raising funds for the institution where our daughters live. A marathon is 42 km in metric, more or less; the six runners do 5 km, 10 km, 5 km, 10 km, 5km and then the last 7km in turn, handing on the team sash at each step.

We went to cheer them on, along with Liz who is visiting Brussels from Thailand. It was a big event, hubbed at the King Baudouin (formerly Heysel) stadium, with several hundred teams (we saw teams numbered in the 900s, but we don’t know if every hundred was full). Most of the teams seemed to be corporate like ours, but there were also a few athletics clubs who were going much faster.

The usual approaches to the stadium had been blocked off so it took us a while to find our way in. By the time we had located the fearless APCOnauts, the first runner, Greg, had already done his stint and the third, Dania, was waiting to take over from the second, Edo.

Lea, our fifth runner; Anne; Liz, visiting from Thailand; Greg, our first runner; Augustin, our sixth runner; Bart, our fourth runner
Dania (in black) waiting for Edo to finish his 10k
Edo hands over the sash to Dania

It was a surprisingly sunny and warm day for late October, and a good atmosphere among runners and supporters. We walked Liz over to the Atomium and said goodbye to her there, returning to the stadium to take a few more pictures and videos (which annoyingly did not come out due to low phone battery).

And a lone piper was serenading the runners. All perfectly normal in the land of surrealism.

Thanks again to the team – very much appreciated!

12 Years a Slave, and Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and only two others, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay; Gravity got seven Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street. I have seen none of them, though Gravity is next on my list as it won both the Hugo and the SFWA Ray Bradbury Awards.

I have seen very few other films from that year. The only one I sat through with my full attention was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I have been in the same room as small children watching Frozen. And I got halfway through Saving Mr Banks before something distracted me and I never got around to finishing it. IMDB users rank 12 Years a Slave 6th best film of the year on one ranking, but only 30th on the other. The Wolf of Wall Street tops both rankings, and Prisoners and The Man of Steel are both ahead of 12 Years a Slave on both. Of my limited sample of the year, I like 12 Years a Slave best.

Here’s a trailer.

A number of actors who appeared in previous award-winning films, starting with the star himself, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in Solomon Northrup here and was the Operative in Serenity.

Not as high up the list, but Sarah Paulson is the gruesome wife of plantation owner Epps here, and was also in Serenity as Dr Caron, who gets gruesomely killed by the Reavers.

Dwight Henry, as Uncle Abram, and Quvenzhané Wallis, as Solomon’s daughter Margaret, return from last year’s Bradbury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, where they played the key protagonists, father and daughter. Both films of course are mostly set in Louisiana. Unlike last year, they don’t share any scenes together this time.

Going further down the list, Scoot McNairy is Brown, one of Solomon’s captors, here; last year, with less facial hair, he was Joe Stafford, one of the fugitive diplomats in Argo.

And finally Garret Dillahunt, the treacherous Armsby here, was deputy sheriff Wendell in No Country for Old Men, again with much less facial hair but with a similar hat.

Apart from the above, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt also play significant roles, Cumberbatch and Fassbender as bad guy slaveholders and Pitt as the good guy who eventually gets Solomon freed. This was also Lupita Nyong’o’s first significant role as Patsy.

After many many entries in which I have castigated Oscar winners for their racism, including as recently as last year’s winner, Argo, this is a film entirely about the African American experience of slavery, which goes a little way towards expiating the Academy’s past faults. Closely based on an autobiographical account, it is the story of a free African-American from New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and endures twelve years of horrible treatment on cotton and sugar plantations in Louisiana before finally regaining his freedom by getting a message to friends back north. It is gripping stuff.

As usual, however, I’m going to start with the elements of the film that I did not like as much, before going on to its virtues. The thing I liked least about the film was unfortunately at its very core, and the film could not have been the same without it. The violence is graphic and disturbing. I had to fast-forward through the scene where Solomon is forced to flog Patsey (I had already read the book, so I knew what was coming; it’s 4 minutes and 46 seconds in a single take). It’s not possible to make an honest film about slavery without depicting grim, horrible and repeated violence, but it is not something I enjoy watching. Accounts from the set indicate that the actors were psychologically affected by it too.

My other (much less serious) case of side-eye is the casting of actors playing antebellum Americans. Benedict Cumberbatch is English. Michael Fassbender is Irish. Lupita Nyong’o’s family is from Kenya (the other side of Africa), though she also has Mexican citizenship and was educated in Massachusetts so perhaps it’s a less clear case (she still isn’t Southern, though). The star of the film, Chiwetel Ojiofor, is English and sounds totally London when not acting:

Maybe it’s not such a big deal, but I do think it is unfortunate that none of the lead Southern parts is played by a Southern actor. (And Chiwetel Ojiofor is playing a Northerner.)

Apart from that, the film has a good and important story to tell, and tells it very well. There is no sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, or its shameful endorsement by the forces of the state and the church. (Christianity does not come out well in this film.) There is little Hollywoodisation of the facts – the film has stuck pretty closely to the book it is based on (rare enough), and is probably a better film as a result (even rarer). Although Solomon is freed in the end because he was born a freeman, we are left in no doubt that the continuing enslavement of his fellow workers is an appalling injustice. It skips a little over the formalities of how he was freed, but we know what has happened.

I thought the cinematography and film editing were very good, and look forward to seeing Gravity which won the Oscars in those categories that year. And I don’t usually comment on this, because I am rather fashion-unconscious, but I thought the costuming was superb. I did scratch my head at first at how clean everyone’s clothes generally are, but goin back to the source material, I realised how important cleanliness is to people who have otherwise lost most of their dignity, and indeed how important it was for slave owners to put on a good show.

Unusually, the music is a mixture of diegetic and incidental. Solomon Northrup is a talented violinist, both free and enslaved. One of the most memorable scenes is the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan Roll” by the slaves picking cotton.

The acting is top-notch. I grumbled a bit about the casting of Ojiofor, Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Fassbender earlier. I have no grumbles about their performances, or about anyone else’s. The slaveholders are flawed human beings rather than caricatures. The slaves are individuals who have been placed in awful circumstances. It is of course a didactic story, but it’s at least as much a story about people.

I would have liked to place this higher in my rankings, but the violence really did squick me, so I’m putting it just over a third of the way down my list, in 26th place, just below Oliver! and above Unforgiven.

Next up in the list of Oscar winners is Birdman, but I’ll watch Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy first.

I also read the original book on which the film is based, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup but edited by David Wilson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

I have previously read a number of slavery narratives – Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the research of Rebecca Hall and the close observations of Fanny Kemble – and they are all interesting in different ways. Douglass and Jacobs were born into slavery, and Equiano born in Africa, so Northrup’s account is unusual in being that of a man born free in the USA but then enslaved. It’s also unusual in the relatively neutral presentation of the means and motivation of the slave owners – these are evil people, sure, but their evil is an inevitable consequence of the system.

I also found it really interesting in the precision of the geography where everything happened – I found myself googling the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, and Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana. Northrup is also very detailed and convincing about the precise techniques of employing slave labour for both cotton and sugar cane farming. And of course he is crystal clear about the brutality of the slavery system.

Not surprisingly, there have been Northrup denialists since 1853, just as there have been Anne Frank denialists since a century later. But the level of verifiable detail about named individuals and places is tremendously convincing. It’s also fairly short, and well-written (as is normal for any mid-nineteenth-century writer). You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Saturday reading

Current
Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics
, by Matthew M. Foster
The End of the Day, by Claire North
θ1

Last books finished
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto
, by Dave Tomlinson (did not finish)
η1
Lineage
, ed. Shaun Russell
Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi
Doctor Who and the Face of Evil, by Terrance Dicks
Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup
The Face of Evil, by Thomas L Rodebaugh

Next books
Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait
, by Yvonne Cerkez
The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough

Richard of Cornwall: The English King of Germany, by Darren Baker

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Richard was furious over the fiasco and denounced his stepfather for leading them into a trap. When Hugh just shrugged it off and blamed his wife, Richard removed his armour, picked up a staff, and made his way through the enemy line as a man of peace. The crusaders he saved in the Holy Land welcomed him with joy and respect and gladly conveyed him to the presence of their king. For Richard it had to be extremely humiliating. The last time he and Louis met, just two years earlier, he had been much feted and honoured. Now he was standing before him, a nervous and sweaty pilgrim humbly begging for a truce.

I was enthusiastically looking forward to this newly published book about Richard of Cornwall after very much enjoying The King of Almayne, by T.W.E. Roche; this is the thirteenth-century English prince, younger son of King John and brother of Henry III, who was elected “King of the Romans” (ie of Germany) and might have become Holy Roman Emperor, a fascinating case of England reaching into the politics of continental Europe with plenty of contemporary resonance.

Baker’s is the first biography of Richard since Roche’s, more than fifty years ago. It follows on from biographies he has previously written about Richard’s brother, Henry III; his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort; and their wives, Richard’s sister and sister-in-law, both called Eleanor. The preface to the book promises a new portrait of a man driven by ego and greed, and perpetually in the psychological shadow of his brother (who incidentally was not all that bad).

Unfortunately the book itself is not all that good. It is largely a dry recitation of where Richard happened to be travelling to throughout the years of his long life, stifling the more dramatic moments and leavening the dullness of the facts as presented with sweeping and unsupported statements about Richard’s psychological state, failing to really substantiate the points made in the preface.

I also felt that given that this is the author’s fourth book about a member of the dysfunctional ruling family of thirteenth-century England, he assumes that the reader has knowledge of the earlier three, or at least of their subject matter, and important events and background are skipped or over-summarised.

I was frankly disappointed with this book, but it motivated me to download a copy of Noel Denholm-Young’s 1947 biography which everyone speaks highly of, and I’ll get to that sooner or later. Meanwhile, you can get Baker’s book here.

“Tangents”, by Greg Bear and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

So, on to the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1987 for works of 1986. This time there are two, a short story and a novel.

“Tangents” by Greg Bear, the short story in question, was originally published in Omni. I found scans of the original publication and thought I should share these two cartoons that were originally published alongside it. Unfortunately I can’t read the credits on the scan of page 12 which would have identified the artist, nor can I identify the signature on the first (the second is unsigned).

A conference hall full of people, with a sign reading "National Holography Association"; a man discovers that one of the audience is really a hologram.
Three men looking at two blackboards. Two of them are standing in front of a blackboard with a very complex equation written on it. One of them is sayiong to the other, "Cotsworth here claims to have found a simpler version." He pointing to the third man, who is looking at another blackboard which has the simple inscription "1 + 1 = 2".

This piece by Michel Henricot which illustrated the story itself.

A metallic, mouthless male figure from the chest up.

Second paragraph of third section of “Tangents”:

“None of my muscles move that way,” Lauren said. “You’re sure you can’t make him … happy, stop all this trouble?”

When I first read it in 2000, I briefly commented:

A story of the fourth (and higher) dimensions which is good fun but didn’t quite work for me.

I stand by that judgement twenty years on. The story is about the Platonic friendship between an adult gay man and a young boy, and about how we in three-dimensional space might perceive four-dimensional beings, and there is music in there as well, but it just doesn’t hang together for me. You can get it in the collection of stories by Bear with the same name.

Three other stories were on both the Hugo and Nebula final ballots for Best Short Story: “The Boy Who Plaited Manes”, by Nancy Springer; “Rat”, by James Patrick Kelly; and “Robot Dreams”, by Isaac Asimov. The Hugo ballot also included “Still Life”, by David S. Garnett, and the Nebula ballot also included “The Lions Are Asleep This Night”, by Howard Waldrop, and “Pretty Boy Crossover”, by Pat Cadigan. I’m sure I’ve read the Asimov but can’t remember which one it is, and I don’t think I have read the others.

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, the sequel to Ender’s Game which had won both awards the previous year. A few weeks ago in the middle of the night I came across a fanzine article from 1987 drawing attention to Card’s own role in the Nebula process, but I failed to note it down and now can’t find it again. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

We’ve never seen them eat anything else. Novinha analyzed all three foods – macios, capim blades, and merclona leaves – and the results were surprising. Either the peclueninos don’t need many different proteins, or they’re hungry all the time. Their diet is seriously lacking in many trace elements. And calcium intake is so low, we wonder whether their bones use calcium the same way ours do.

Again, I first read it in 2000 and noted then,

Speaker for the Dead is a better book than Ender’s Game; a grown-up Ender, many centuries on thanks to time dilation, comes to solve the problems of the interaction between humans and the alien Piggies on the latter’s home world, and incidentally resolve several issues of the human society there as well. Tackles family life for adults as the previous book tackled children.

As with Ender’s Game, this time around the things that annoyed me about the book annoyed me more. There are two central tragedies in the narrative: Ender’s own hidden past as a perpetrator of genocide, and the unintentional homicide of the indigenous aliens, and also the well-intentioned destruction inflicted by the aliens on their human friends. But the real story here is about colonialism and colonisation, and there’s not much interrogation of that at all; and the fact that the aliens are given an insulting nickname throughout is frankly disgusting. But you can get it here.

There was one other novel on both Hugo and Nebula ballots, Count Zero by William Gibson, which like every other Gibson novel I have read I cannot remember anything about. The Hugo ballot also included The Ragged Astronauts, by Bob Shaw, which won the BSFA Award that year, and Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge neither of which I have read.

The Nebula ballot also included The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, winner of the Clarke Award and a retrospective Tiptree Award and surely the most important sf novel of the year in retrospect, and Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe, The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy and This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow, none of which I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale is a far better book than Speaker for the Dead, and it’s not to the credit of Hugo or Nebula voters that they chose the latter.

In the other categories, the Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Permafrost” by Roger Zelazny, one of the many by him that I rather like, and the Nebula to “The Girl Who Fell into the Sky”, by Kate Wilhelm. “Permafrost” was on both ballots, as were “Hatrack River” by Orson Scott Card and “The Winter Market” by William Gibson.

The Hugo for Best Novella went to “Gilgamesh in the Outback” by Robert Silverberg, and the Nebula to “R&R” by Lucius Shepard. Both were on both ballots, as was “Escape from Kathmandu” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

That was also the year that the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Aliens, which is better than anything else I have mentioned in this post, apart from The Handmaid’s Tale.

The following year, unusually, there were no joint winners. The Hugo written categories were won by The Uplift War by David Brin, “Eye for Eye” by Orson Scott Card, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans; and the Nebulas were won by The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy, “The Blind Geometer” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Rachel in Love” again by Pat Murphy and “Forever Yours, Anna” by Kate Wilhelm.

So the next post in this sequence will cover two shorter pieces from 1988 that won in 1989: “Schrödinger’s Kitten” by George Alec Effinger and “The Last of the Winnebagos” by Connie Willis.

The Dæmons, by Matt Barber (and Barry Letts)

The next in the Black Archive sequence of commentary on Doctor Who is on The Dæmons, which rounded off the eighth season of Old Who in 1971. As usual, I went back and rewatched the original story, and then reread the novelisation, published in 1974, before getting to the Black Archive analysis.

When I first watched it in 2007, I wrote:

The Dæmons, first shown in 1971, is presumably the only Doctor Who story featuring a character in the title outside the standard 26 letters of the alphabet (plus numbers and punctuation). I’m a bit stunned that it is remembered as the peak of the Pertwee era by some. It’s not very good; it’s not very bad either; perhaps that makes it an archetypal Pertwee story, and so those who like that sort of thing will like this sort of thing. Delgado is good; Benton and Yates are good (and this story has clearly provided much inspiration for slash writers); both the Third Doctor and Jo are bad, as usual; and the monster is just awful, as is the final twist (it is destroyed when Jo offers her life instead of the Doctor’s as such self-sacrifice CANNOT COMPUTE).

My brother in 2010 wrote up The Daemons in the style of New Who:

JO: Don’t kill the Doctor, he’s fantastic! Kill me instead!
AZAL: Good point. I was just realizing how stupid it would be to kill the Doctor. (KILLS JO).
DOCTOR: Tut tut.
AZAL: I’m the last of my kind, you know.
DOCTOR: Really?

When I got to it again myself later in 2010, in my Great Rewatch, I liked it a lot more than first time around:

The Dæmons is surely the greatest of the UNIT stories, and one of the most English stories of this very English show. Evil morris dancers! A white witch! The Master is your local vicar! The first time I watched this I didn’t like it much, but taken in context, and an episode at a time, I can see why this Barry Letts script is seen as a high point of the Barry Letts years; it is the first time, apart from The War Games, that we have had a season finale as such, pulling all the characters together and ending with the Master’s disgrace and capture.

The Brigadier is off the main field of action for most of the story, which actually gives him a chance to shine on his own rather than be snarled at by Pertwee, and generates a nice the-boss-is-away dynamic among the other UNIT folks, augmented by Delgado on top form and by Damaris Hayman’s wonderfully batty performance as Miss Hawthorne (who we assume had a jolly good fertility dance with Benton throughout the following night). Apart from Richard Franklin, who is clearly the weakest of the regulars, everyone is excellent. (I enjoyed also watching the Return to Devil’s End documentary, bringing Pertwee, Courtney, Franklin and Levene back to the village along with director Christopher Barry.)

commented back in The Abominable Snowmen that Who has four ways of treating religion: squabbling sectarians, deluded cultists, religious buildings used for nefarious purposes, or true believers. The Dæmons includes both the second and third categories. As far as I remember it is also the first time religion has been portrayed on the show since The Abominable Snowmen, and the only time apart from Steven’s profession of faith (or at least denomination) in The Massacre and the unecclesiastical antics of The Smugglers that we have had anything explicit about the Church of England. More on this in the story after next.

Once again, I liked it a bit more on rewatching. Sometimes one enjoys performances that little bit more because the performers are clearly having a good time, and this is one of those. The spooky line between science and magic is nicely explored as well; we’ll get to that later.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation, by Barry Letts, is:

Across the churchyard flitted a shadow a little more dense than the shadows of the gravestones in the moonlight. Seeking the sanctuary of the church wall, it paused momentarily as if to make sure it was unobserved and then vanished through the vestry door.

The Master talks to a young man in the vestry

When I re-read the novelisation in 2008, I wrote:

This was one of those books which, on rereading, very much lived up to my fond childhood memories. It is funny, witty, adds bags of backstory to both minor and major characters (the account of the Doctor and the Master growing up together on Gallifrey ought to be canon for all interested fanfic writers), substitutes far better special effects on the page for the end-of-budget ones we got on-screen, and is generally a good read. My favourite Third Doctor book so far.

Again, I still think this is the best Third Doctor novelisation, with Doctor Who and the Green Death by Malcolm Hulke being its only serious rival; it’s the only classic series novelisation by Barry Letts, the producer throughout the Pertwee years. One aspect that I feel deserves a bit more attention: the dramatic internal illustrations by Alan Willow, this being the first of seven novelisations that he illustrated between 1974 and 1975. (Though his take on Jo isn’t brilliant, and “creature” is misspelt in the second caption – not his fault, I guess.)

You can get it here.

Matt Barber’s Black Archive on The Dæmons is of average length for this sequence, but has very long chapters, so this review will probably be unfairly short.

The introduction sets out Barber’s stall: The Dæmons is actually a very atypical and unusual Doctor Who story, “without time travel, with little science fiction and, debatably, an ambiguous approach to the existence of magic; a story in which the TARDIS does not appear and is not even mentioned.” Barber himself has an MA in the History and Literature of Witchcraft, and his PhD focused on the mythologising of American politics in film and television, so he brings an unusual set of analytical filters to the task.

The first chapter, “The Unholy Power of Olive Hawthorne”, looks at witchcraft lore through Margaret Alice Murray, Gerald Gardner, and James Frazer of course, before turning to the role of Miss Hawthorne in the narrative; he makes the interesting point that although she is presented initially as a somewhat batty busybody, in fact she is right about what is really going on and all the men she argues with, including the Doctor, are wrong.

(I must add also that Damaris Hayman, who plays Miss Hawthorne, appears in the very last episode of Here Come the Double Deckers! which also dates from 1971.)

The second chapter, “Satanism, Devilish Pacts and Scientists”, starts with a real-life West Country vicar who was accused of involvement with black magic in 1969; then looks at Faust and the Master (and to an extent the Doctor as well); then at the influence of Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley in general; and finally at the similarities and differences between The Dæmons and The Devil Rides Out.

The third chapter’s title is “A Tour of Devil’s End”. Its second paragraph is:

There is something about the English village that made it an enticing location for particular genres of popular culture in the 1970s. But why should such a parochial and picturesque location become such a standard for horror and dark fantasy? In the previous chapter, I inferred that the writers of Doctor Who were, like fan creators, ‘textual poachers’. In this chapter, I want to press this idea further by looking at how the series adapts the work of genre writers including John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, MR James and HP Lovecraft to create a new, gestalt narrative. Through this, I want to explore how the English countryside and pastoral mythology has been adopted and reshaped by popular culture before, during and after the production of The Dæmons. In this way I will unpack what the English village brought as a location for this story and others in the 1970s and 1980s, and what Aldbourne in particular contributes to the character and popularity of The Dæmons. This will be a whistle-stop tour through subjects ranging from folk horror and pseudo-archaeology to psychogeography, hauntology and religion.

The opening paragraph of the chapter points out that Aldbourne, the village where The Dæmons was filmed, is very close to Silbury Hill, the ancient artificial mound which was the subject of a televised dig in 1969. (My old friend Jonathan Last has things to say about Silbury Hill.) Barber then looks at the real geography of Aldbourne, the connections between The Dæmons and the Fifth Doctor story The Awakening, the subgenre of Folk Horror, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, the role of the Church (both institution and building), M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and the role of the pub.

A brief conclusion reflects on Barber’s personal reaction to visiting Aldbourne over the years, and an appendix gives a plot summary of The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, which is clearly a taproot text for this story.

In general I prefer the Black Archive books that reflect a bit more than this does on the production, plot and performances in the stories that they are looking at. But this was a very interesting and well-informed exploration of the cultural roots of The Dæmons. Recommended. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

July 2018 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.

The month started with a trip to Sofia, rounding off my work with the Bulgarian EU Presidency; the photographer who was part of our group took a nice set of pictures. I like this one of me.

I got to the Tolkien exhibition in Oxford as well:

And we watched the World Cup Final in France, staying with my sister in Burgundy. France won, with the enthusiastic support of locals. Sometimes you do your best with what you’ve got.

At the start of our summer holiday, F and I went to Comic Con in London where I met with a large number of Doctors.

And finally, our stay in Northern Ireland got off to a typical start.

I read 31 books that month.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 30)
The Complete Ice Age, by Brian M. Fagan
The Man Within My Head, by Pico Iyer
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer

Fiction non-sf): 3 (YTD 19)
The Way By Swann’s, by Marcel Proust
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
Maigret Loses His Temper, by Georges Simenon

Poetry: 3 (YTD 3)
The Æneid, by Virgil, translated by John Dryden
The Æneid, by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles
The Æneid Book VI, by Virgil, translated by Seamus Heaney

sf (non-Who): 15 (YTD 76)
Robot Visions, by Isaac Asimov
Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire
Your Code Name is Jonah, by Edward Packard
Newry Bridge, or Ireland in 1887 (Anonymous)
The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden
Anno Mortis, by Rebecca Levene
“Slow Sculpture”, by Theodore Sturgeon
A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan
An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
Under the Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng (extract)
Up Jim River, by Michael Flynn (did not finish)
Wounded Heart, by S.W. Baird
Aztec Century, by Christopher Evans
The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero
The Martian Inca, by Ian Watson

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 21)
Doctor Who Quiz Book of Dinosaurs, by Michael Holt
Wit, Wisdom and Timey-Wimey Stuff, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright
The Two Jasons, by Dave Stone

Comics: 4 (YTD 20)
Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain
Aliénor, la Légende noire, tome 5, by Arnaud Delalande, Simona Mogavino and Carlos Gomez
Aliénor, la Légende noire, tome 6, by Arnaud Delalande, Simona Mogavino and Carlos Gomez
The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia, by Bryan Talbot and Mary Talbot

~7,900 pages (YTD ~47,100)
11/31 (YTD 73/172) by non-male writers (Waters, McGuire, Arden, Levene, Brennan, Solomon, Ng, Baird, Mogavino x2, Talbot)
3/31 (YTD 21/172) by PoC (Iyer, Ng, Solomon)

Top books this month were:

  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – get it here;
  • Weapons of Mass Diplomacy, by “Abel Lanzac” (Antoine Baudry) – get it here;
  • The Way by Swann’s, by Marcel Proust (reread) – get it here.

On the other hand I bounced off Up Jim River, by Michael Flynn; you can get it here.

Jocasta, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was a broken land, uninhabited, the land called Phocis through which they were passing.

(Longer extract here.)

Resuming regular bookblogging, at least until I work through the backlog.

While I am here, I want to respond to a comment from a friend on Facebook who queried my habit of linking to Amazon here for the books that I review. (Unless they are only available elsewhere.) Yes, I know that Amazon has many problems, and I deleted all my reviews from their site back in 2010. But the fact is that every book bought through one of my links gives me a small Amazon credit – not a lot, a pound every couple of months, but it’s the only physical reward I get for writing my blog. I don’t have a lot of other options for ordering English-language books by mail, especially now that Brexit has made it much more difficult to purchase from UK suppliers who haven’t done the EU paperwork. I’m always on the lookout for alternatives, but haven’t yet found any.

Anyway, this was one of the books I got Brian Aldiss to autograph in Forbidden Planet in 2015, a year before he died, published in 2004. It’s a retelling of the Theban Plays, but told largely from the point of view of Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and mother, as her family and her world disintegrate. It also includes a short story relating the Antigone narrative to political oppression today.

I really enjoyed both parts. The Jocasta story is particularly strong, the title character dealing with supernatural creatures loose in the palace, her aged grandmother communing with the old powers, her teenage children being brats, appearances from Sophocles and other voices from the future, and the claws of destiny slowly closing around her husband. Long long ago I saw Pasolini’s Edipo Re (a very unsuccessful first date), and I’m sure that Aldiss was familiar with it too, as I am sure I detected echoes of it. The Antigone postscript takes a different approach with mixed timelines, but I enjoyed it too. You can get it here. (And here’s a longer review from the Spectator.)

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile: Aldiss’s Complete Short Stories: The 1950s.

My grandfather and Irish decimalisation

Three men, Ken Whitaker, Sean Murray and George Colley, pose with the new Irish decimal currency in February 1971

It’s a photograph that I have long been familiar with; legendary Irish economist and public servant T.K. Whitaker on the left, Minister for Finance George Colley on the right, and in the middle my grandfather, Sean F. Murray, previously Whitaker’s deputy at the Department of Finance, inspecting the new decimal Irish currency, switching from the old system of 20 shillings and 240 pennies to the pound, to the new 100 pence which endured until the arrival of the euro. My grandfather chaired the internal government committee that brought in the new system.

The new Irish decimal coins exactly matched the British, as the old coins had done since they were introduced in 1928; there was later some divergence, as the Irish 50p coin did not downsize when the British did, and the Irish 20p coin was larger and rounder than the British one, but for most of the period from 1971 to 2002, most British and Irish coins were physically interchangeable, and certainly in Northern Ireland you would normally find some Irish coinage mixed in with your sterling change. This could occasionally lead to problems after the Irish pound aligned with the European Monetary System in 1979; I remember well Black Wednesday in 1992, when the exchange rate shifted from £1.05 Irish to £1 sterling, to vice versa in the course of a few days.

In hindsight, the decision to continue the alignment of the Irish and British currencies after decimalisation in 1971 looks like a no-brainer, and I must say I had vaguely wondered what my grandfather’s committee actually did other than accept the inevitable. I was completely wrong. A 2020 Ph D thesis by Andrew John Cook at the University of Huddersfield looks in depth at the decimalisation process, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the Commonwealth (much of which had inherited the pounds, shillings and pence of the colonisers) and Ireland. The story is much more complicated than I had realised, and in fact all three of the men in the photograph – Whitaker, Murray and Colley – had initially opposed the decision that they ended up implementing.

From the early days of independence, occasional voices had floated ideas that Ireland should decimalise its currency – but by adopting the ten-shilling unit and shillings as the core of the new system, abolishing the pound and changing from 12 pennies to 10 cents in each shilling. This was not a fringe idea. The first such proposal was from T.A. Smiddy, Michael Collins’ economic advisor and later the Irish Free State’s first ambassador (to the United States). The surviving memo from him to Collins is dated April 1923 in the archives – which must be incorrect, because Smiddy was already in Washington by then and Collins had been dead for eight months. If he received it during his lifetime, Collins would have had other things on his mind anyway.

A cabinet committee in 1959, and another in 1965, endorsed the ten-shilling scheme, though a sizeable minority in both cases preferred to move in tandem with the UK. Another proposal floated at the time was to move to florins, worth two old shillings, as the base unit; each florin would have 100 cents (so 10 florins and 1000 cents to the old pound). The argument was that for a country much poorer than the UK, the fundamental unit need not be as valuable as the British pound.

But with the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965, and the 1966 British announcement that they would move to a pound with 100 pence in 1971, the situation became urgent. Cook quotes from several government memos written by my grandfather, from which it becomes clear that he ended up as the key mover, along with Finance Minister and then Taoiseach Jack Lynch and also Charles Haughey, Lynch’s successor in Finance, to ensure that Irish decimalisation would match the British process.

My grandfather was in charge from an early stage. In January 1967, three months before I was born, he wrote a memo to the Cabinet on behalf of the Department of Finance recommending the florin-cent system. This was also supported by his boss, T.K. Whitaker, and by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Frank Aiken, and for Industry and Commerce, George Colley. However, the 85-year-old President De Valera supported the ten-shilling scheme (advocated 45 years earlier by Smiddy) in an October 1967 letter to the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, in which he also foresaw the ultimate role of a single European currency:

I would adopt half the pound sterling, that is the ten-shilling note as the Irish fundamental note. It would have to be given a name. For want of a better one I use Réalt here. One tenth of a Réalt would be a scilling and one tenth of a scilling a pingin.

If I were asked, why not keep exactly to the British unit, I would say that the ten shilling one is a better one on its merits. Moreover, it is desirable that Dublin is not considered a mere suburb of London, or Ireland as a piece of West Britain. There are, possibly, amongst us some who desire this but we should not aid them. There is no better way of making visitors feel they have come to a different nation than by having a different currency …

We will never get a chance like this again for a quiet assertion of our nationality. The decision to be made here is, in my opinion not a mere economic one. It is, also, a national one, and were the decision to be mine I would not hesitate a moment. The British might, sometime in the future change the basis again, we would surely look ridiculous if we were always accommodating ourselves to them. The position would be different of course if the nations of Europe were all to go over to a common unit and Britain were to join them. We could then, without any loss of dignity, accept the common unit.

But the Minister of Finance, Jack Lynch, had been in favour of simply following the British lead since at least 1966, and when he became Taoiseach in October of that year, the new Minister of Finance, Charles Haughey, ruthlessly implemented Lynch’s policy. (Which is rather ironic, given later events.) Haughey commissioned a public consultation, and put my grandfather in charge of managing it and ensuring that it came up with the right answer (thus neutralising one of the internal voices in favour of the florin system).

The banks were particularly strong supporters of the Haughey/Lynch plan, and that carried a lot of weight. On 23 April 1968, Haughey, backed by his deputy, Jim Gibbons, and by Lynch as Taoiseach, announced the shift to pounds and new pence with the same value as sterling, to take place on 15 February 1971, the same day as the UK, based on the results of the public consultation and the conclusions of the committee that my grandfather had been running.

By February 1971, Haughey had been dramatically fired by Lynch, and tried and acquitted of shipping arms to the IRA, with Gibbons (who had meanwhile become Minister of Defence) the chief witness against him. His replacement as Minister of Finance was George Colley, meaning that he and my grandfather, who had both been early supporters of the florin scheme, were now in charge of implementing a completely different proposal.

The RTÉ coverage of Decimalisation Day starts with Colley in a Dublin bank, my grandfather beside him looking at the camera to see if it is rolling, and ends with my grandfather in a brief interview saying that it all seems to have gone well. (And it had.) It must have been one of the biggest days of his career, and one can sense his glee. (I wasn’t able to embed the video directly, so this is it captured via my iPad; there are some silent parts, including at the beginning.)

Today is in fact the 113rd anniversary of my grandfather’s birth, on 16 October 1909. (His sister-in-law, now aged 106, is still with us.) He died in 1976 when I was nine, and the last thing I remember talking to him about was Gulliver’s Travels. I am the oldest of his 22 grandchildren; here I am with the first of his great-great-grandchildren, my half-first-cousin-twice-removed, born last year.

Meanwhile Andrew Cook’s thesis looks like a rollicking good read of what might at first sound like a very dry corner of administrative history, and for the time being at least, you can get it here.

Saturday reading

Current
Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi
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Lineage, ed. Shaun Russelll
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson

Last books finished
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Doctor Who: A British Alien?, by Danny Nicol
La Femme, ed. Ian Whates

Next books
The End of the Day, by Claire North
Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster

How I decide which book to read next

Blogging has been a bit light in the last couple of weeks, due to a combination of two weekends away in a row (normally I write a week or two’s worth of entries at the weekend) and the fact that due to award submissions I can’t actually write about some of the books I have been reading. So I thought I would do a soft relaunch by telling you about how I decide which books to read next.

I have developed a Reading Order to guide me up the slopes of Mount Tsundoku. I have two aims here: first, to get through as many unread books as possible, especially those that have been on my shelves for a while; second, to make sure that in that process I don’t end up spending too much time on books by white men (which are inevitably the majority).

I catalogue all of my books on LibraryThing, a superb resource. At the time of writing I have 8095 books catalogued there, of which 382 are currently tagged as unread. I have classified the unread books into a number of lists, as follows (the original neat alphabetical order has been overtaken by events):

  • a) unread non-fiction books, in order of entry into my catalogue
  • c) unread non-fiction books, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • d) unread non-sff fiction books, in order of entry into my catalogue
  • e) unread non-sff fiction books, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • f) unread sf books, in order of entry into my catalogue
  • h) unread sf books, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • p) unread comics in languages other than English, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • q) unread comics in English, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • s) unread books by writers of colour, roughly in order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • u♀) unread books by writers who are not men
  • y) unread books acquired in the year I am currently finishing up (2015 at present), in ascending order of page length
  • b15) unread books acquired in 2015, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b16) unread books acquired in 2016, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b17) unread books acquired in 2017, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b18) unread books acquired in 2018, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b19) unread books acquired in 2019, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b20) unread books acquired in 2020, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b21) unread books acquired in 2021, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b22) unread books acquired in 2022, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • hn) joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, in chronological order
  • k) winners of the Clarke, BSFA Best Novel and Tiptoe/Otherwise awards, in chronological order
  • wells) books on my shelves by H.G. Wells that I have not yet written up online, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • pterry) books on my shelves by Terry Pratchett that I have not yet written up online, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • v) books on my shelves that I have in fact read but have not written up online, and are not by Terry Pratchett, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing

At the start of the calendar year, I take the top book on each list and arrange them in a Reading Order by length, shortest first. I then bump up any book not by a white man up the Reading Order by six places. (Or to the top of the list if already in the top six.) And that’s my initial Reading Order for the year. Sometimes the same book appears at the top of more than one list, and that’s fine.

As I start each book, I recheck the list it was on to take account of newly acquired books; when I finish each book, the next book on that list goes either to the end of the Reading Order, if by a white man, or seventh from the end, if not by a white man. If the book I have just finished was at the top of more than one list, the next books in each list are arranged by increasing LibraryThing popularity on the Reading Order (so that I get to the more obscure ones first).

I read three books at a time, usually the three which were top of the Reading Order. I make exceptions – if I am already reading two sf books, I may slide down the Reading Order to take the next non-sf book; if I am starting two or three new books at the same time, I’ll start with the shortest of the top two or three on the Reading Order.

I’ve been publishing the current Reading Order in my end-of-month book roundups since January 2010. I have varied the system over the years. Back when Livejournal was a thing and Mount Tsundoku was much lower, I did annual polls to help me decide which books to read the following year. I’m getting through four years’ worth of Tiptree / BSFA / Clarke winners every year, and am now at 2008, so I will finish the k) list in 2026 at that rate. The H.G. Wells and Terry Pratchett lists are new, basically to stop them dominating the b19) and v) lists respectively.

There are special measures for the year that currently has the earliest unread books – at present 2015. I’m about to change the system here. From now on, one of the three regular reading slots will be reserved for the next book on the Reading Order which was acquired in 2015, ie from lists a), d), f), b15) and y). If the top book on lists a), d) or f) was acquired later than 2015, it will be put on hold until I finish the 2015 books. (This is currently the case for lists d) and f), the two fiction categories.) When I do finish the 2015 books I’ll do the same for those acquired in 2016, and so hope to gradually work my way up the Tsundoku slopes.

There are also special measures for Doctor Who books. Each month, the first open slot among my three regular books will be filled by reading the next unread Doctor Who graphic novel from my (large) stash of digital comics, in series canonical order. Then I will read the top unread Doctor Who prose book, whether fiction or non-fiction, from my shelves. Then I will read the next in the Lethbridge-Stewart sequence. Then I will read the next two Black Archive books, and the novelisation of the relevant stories if they exist.

And finally, I also have a “speed read” option where I alternate 50 pages of the three Reading Order books with 50 pages of a book that I want to finish fast. I am currently implementing this for award submissions, but in the first half of the year I tend to use it a lot for Christmas presents, BSFA shortlisted works and Hugo finalists. I also implement it for books that were the basis for Oscar-, Hugo- and Nebula-winning films as I watch them. They tend to be short. (Not always.)

And of course fairly often I just pick up a book off the shelf at random, and read it. Damn the torpedoes!

June 2018 books

Blogging still a bit slow, after a couple of weekends away; look forward to catching up this weekend.

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.

Work trips to Dubrovnik, London, Paris, Berlin and Skopje this month. My Dubrovnik conference was enlivened by a Game of Thrones location walk:

Closer to home, I took B out to her neighbourhood just before her birthday:

On the last day of the month, an interesting conversation at the post office:

https://twitter.com/nwbrux/status/1013002972618510336

A nostalgic group shot from the Skopje trip (actually taken by T on the left):

Non-fiction: 2 (YTD 27)
Virgins, Weeders and Queens, by Twigs Way
Brexit and the Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & Its People in Peace & Prosperity, by Senator Mark Daly

Fiction non-sf): 2 (YTD 16)
Gemini, by Dorothy Dunnett
Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
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Theatre: 2 (YTD 3)
Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
Le Mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

sf (non-Who): 12 (YTD 61)
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee
Penric’s Fox, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Stories of the Raksura vol. 2, by Martha Wells
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty
Introduction to the Stormlight Archive for Hugo Voters, by Brandon Sanderson
The Art of Starving, by Sam J. Miller
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner
Moominvalley in November, by Tove Jansson
Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn

Doctor Who, etc: 1 (YTD 18)
Old Friends, by Jonathan Clements, Marc Platt and Pete Kempshall

Comics: 1 (YTD 16)
Rose de Paris, by Gilles Schlesser and Eric Puech

~6,200 pages (YTD ~39,200)
9/20 (YTD 62/141) by non-male writers (Way, Dunnett, Selasi, Alison, Bujold, Wells, Lafferty, Jansson, Kuhn)
3/20 (YTD 18/141) by PoC (Selasi, Lee, Kuhn)
0/20 (YTD 6/141) reread

I gave no less than five of these top ranking for the month:

  • Virgins, Weeders and Queens, by my old friend Twigs Way – get it here;
  • Penric’s Fox, by Lois McMaster Bujold – get it here;
  • Gemini, by Dorothy Dunnett – get it here;
  • Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty – get it here; and
  • City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett – get it here.

On the other hand I was thoroughly unimpressed by Senator Mark Daly’s report on Brexit and the Future of Ireland.

Weekend in Trier

For our wedding anniversary trip this year, Anne and I went to Trier, not the nearest large German city to us (Aachen, Cologne, Bonn and most of the Ruhr are closer) but certainly the most ancient German city within easy striking range. I’ve been a couple of times before, first I think in 1986, and I always love going back to the Porta Nigra, the Roman gate which has mostly remained through the centuries.

The other place I particularly love in Trier is what is now the Protestant Church of the Redeemer, originally built in the early fourth century as the throne room of the Emperor Constantine I, who made Christianity the official religion. It is the largest enclosed space to have survived from the Roman Empire, and thought to be the fifth largest constructed in those times (the other four, now destroyed, were in Italy). It is just amazing to stand there in a room constructed 1700 years ago for imperial audiences.

Trier is commemorating the fall of the Roman Empire this year with a massive set of exhibitions, and we went for the full tourist package, which I would actually recommend; details below. The basics are:

Accommodation: Holiday Inn Express, 15 mins walk from the Porta Nigra, very good breakfast and comfortable basic rooms.
Friday dinner: Weinstube Zum Domstein, Hauptmarkt 5; more below.
Saturday lunch: er, McDonalds. At least you know what you are getting.
Saturday dinner: Restaurant Balkan, close to the hotel, nostalgia for Balkan days.
Sunday lunch: Okoki Sushi & Grill, who have an attractive all-you-can-eat offer though in fact we went for the bento boxes before leaving.

The full tourist package comes with a ticket to all three major museums in Trier, also a Roman meal, a guided walking tour and a wine tasting. I should say that it is wise to book at least a week in advance with the Trier tourist office; my own booking got stuck in my Gmail spam filter, and a couple of glitches needed to be sorted out – however the tourist office were very helpful, taking into account that last weekend was a holiday weekend in Germany.

So. We started with the Roman meal, hosted by the Weinstube zum Domstein, a gemütlich enough place. This was a large set of small dishes based on the Apicium, a Roman recipe book attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius. No potatoes or tomatoes of course; for me the standout dish was the ham with myrtle fig sauce, but it was all perfectly yummy. You can have this outside the tourist package as well at the Weinstube zum Domstein as long as you order in advance.

On Saturday morning we went to the big exhibition at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier. They have pulled together a colossal assembly of artifacts from the Roman Empire, starting more or less from the time of Constantine (who reigned from 306 to 337) and ending with the successor states in the region. Two points to flag up: no photography is allowed, and it’s a lot more accessible if you have decent German (there is an audioguide in English but it doesn’t cover everything and is scripted as annoying banter between an uninformed man and an expert woman).

My breath was taken away by the very first exhibit: the scepter and insignia of Maxentius. Maxentius was the rival emperor to Constantine who was killed at the battle of Milvian Bridge outside Rome in 312. His imperial regalia were hidden under a staircase, and found in 2006, almost seventeen centuries later. They are the only surviving regalia of a Roman emperor. Normally they are in Rome but they’re in Trier until the end of the exhibition.

(No photography allowed in Trier – this is the photo from the National Roman Museum in Rome)

The whole thing is great, but three other things particularly caught my attention. The first was a fifth-century silver jug, engraved in beautiful detail with the apostles and the evangelists, found in Trier in 1992. It is believed to have originally been part of a hoard of Roman silverware found in 1628, 49 pieces weighing 74 kilos in total, which were melted down (!!!!!!!!!!!!!) by order of the ecclesiastical authorities. The surviving jug is a thing of wonder.

Photo: Thomas Zühmer © Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier

I was also particularly grabbed by a letter from a Roman official who had inside knowledge of a currency devaluation (“The divine fortune of our masters has decreed that the nummus will be reduced to half its value”), lent by the John Rylands Library in Machester; and also a reconstruction of the grave goods of Childeric, found in Belgium in 1653, but stolen from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and mostly destroyed in 1831.

The walking tour of the city was conducted enthusiastically by one of the city’s accredited guides. She took us over the highlights of the conflicts that have shaped the city (Napoleon – rather good; Prussians – rather bad; Prince-Bishops – a mixed bunch) and bemoaned the fact that the university was suppressed in 1797 and restored only in 1970. She indicated, but did not take us to, the large statue of Karl Marx donated by the Chinese government in 2018 to mark the bicentennial of his birth in Trier. We went back later to look at it.

Presenter: Well now we come on to our special gift section. The contestant is Karl Marx and the prize this week is a beautiful lounge suite. (curtains behind the presenter sweep open to reveal a beautiful lounge suite; terrific audience applause; Karl comes out and stands in front of this display) Now Karl has elected to answer questions on the workers’ control of factories so here we go with question number one. Are you nervous? (Karl nods his head; the presenter reads from a card)
The development of the industrial proletariat is conditioned by what other development?
Karl: The development of the industrial bourgeoisie.
(applause)
Presenter: Yes, yes, it is indeed. You’re on your way to the lounge suite, Karl. Question number two. The struggle of class against class is a what struggle? A what struggle?
Karl: A political struggle.
(Tumultuous applause.)
Presenter: Yes, yes! One final question Karl and the beautiful lounge suite will be yours… Are you going to have a go? (Karl nods) You’re a brave man. Karl Marx, your final question, who won the Cup Final in 1949?
Karl: The workers’ control of the means of production? The struggle of the urban proletariat?
Presenter: No. It was in fact, Wolverhampton Wanderers who beat Leicester 3-1.

The wine tasting in the Oechsle Wein- & Fischhaus featured white wines from all over the Moselle valley. Well, two from Luxembourg and a fair few from the Saarland. All Moselle wines taste like Moselle wines, though different from each other. I got a couple of bottles of Elbling.

The cathedral retains a small amount of the original Roman fabric, though most of the building has been rebuilt several times since. The façade just right of centre in my picture below, with a triangular pediment surmounting three windows with circular arches (and more with circular arches on the next level down) is more or less original from 1700 years ago. Wow.

Inside it is a lot more baroque. I need to look into the potential linkage between the western dome and my favourite stuccist Jan Christian Hansche. I hope this stereoscopic image works for you.

The Cathedral Museum has some fascinating religious art relating to the fall of Rome and the neighbourhood. There are some fascinating tombstones and grave goods – a third of all burials are of children; their shoes are interred with them; there’s also a grave inscription for the local woman doctor Sarmanna of the fourth century.

Hic iacet Sarman/na medica vixit / pl(us) m(inus) an(nos) LXX Pientius / Pientinus fili(us) et / Honorata norus / titolum posuerunt / in pace
“Here lies Sarmanna the doctor. She lived around 70 years. Pientius, her son Pientinus, and daughter-in-law Honorata placed this monument. In peace.”

I’m afraid that I broke the rules and took a photo of the reconstructed fresco ceiling from the house built for the Bishop of Trier by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena. This woman’s eyes follow me through the centuries.

There is a lot about the necropolis of St Maximin, a large building which housed a thousand tombs in Roman times. I have not come across any other such arrangement on such a large scale for civil burials in any culture, though there is a First World War necropolis near where our daughters live. There’s also a nice exhibition about local bigwig, St Paulinus, whose skull was proven to have spent time in the Middle East by the presence in his nose of a pupal exoskeleton of an insect found only in those parts.

Finally, the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift has a lot of relevant art on display. I am sure I had seen it before, but in this context the Auzon Casket aka the Franks Casket really grabbed my attention – Anglo-Saxon, carved with runes, but referring to Roman history as well as Germanic legend.

The romantic story of the successors and challengers of the Roman Empire has inspired many artists. Here is Hermann / Arminius being crowned leader of the Germans by his wife Thusnelda, as portrayed by Angelika Kauffmann.

The collection includes a miniature version of Rubin Eynon’s Gallos, whose 8-foot original keeps guard at Tintagel:

But I must say that the other piece that grabbed me, not part of the Roman Empire collection but one of the pieces illustrating the history of Trier, was the bleak portrait of three women who had been transported to Nazi Germany as forced labourers, painted by the artist Mia Münster in 1944. There’s an awful bleakness in their eyes.

Anyway. A good weekend culturally, and on the way home we dropped in on my cousin J in Luxembourg, her children L, S and N, her husband D and my old friend M who I had not seen in 20 years and who now works with J. Small world.

Saturday reading

Current
Doctor Who: A British Alien?, by Danny Nicol
Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi
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La Femme, ed. Ian Whates

Last books finished
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Voorbij de Grenzen van de Ernst, by Kamagurka
Weapons of Past Destruction, by Cavan Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachel Stott and Anand Setyawan
Empire Of Sand, by Tasha Suri
Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar
Complete Short Stories: the 1950s, by Brian Aldiss
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Next books
The End of the Day, by Claire North
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson

Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Juicy and Delicious

Beasts of the Southern Wild won SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award for Best Script in 2013, beating The Avengers, The Cabin in the Woods, The Hunger Games, John Carter and Looper. It was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, but beaten by Argo. IMDB users rate it 95th on one ranking and 174th on the other, by far the lowest for any of the films I have been watching in this sequence.

It is about a little girl living on an island off the Mississippi delta, whose world is ending. Her mother is absent, her father is dying, the sea levels are rising to swamp her home, and ancient aurochs thawed from the melting glaciers are on their way.

I loved it. The other films that I have seen from that year are Argo and The Avengers, as noted above, and The Hobbit part 1The Dark Knight RisesLes Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. I actually think I liked Beasts of the Southern Wild most of all of them. Well done, SFWA voters.

None of the actors had been in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula/Bradbury winners, or Doctor Who for that matter; few have them had acted before. Indeed, the father is played by Dwight Henry who ran the bakery across the road from the studio and was co-opted by the producers. They made a wise choice. They made an even wiser choice with Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest ever nominee for an acting Oscar, who is totally believable as Hushpuppy. I had seen her later performance as Annie, so was not completely surprised.

It’s a film with a lot to say about poverty, family, community, the environment and the end of the world. It’s beautifully filmed and the cast, few of whom had much experience, are very strong just being themselves. I’m not going to go on at great length – neither does the film, at only 93 minutes. You should just go and watch it if you haven’t already. I’m putting it tenth overall in my list of Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners, just below Galaxy Quest and above Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It’s based loosedly on a play, Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar who then co-wrote the screenplay with Benh Zeitlin. The third of the many short scenes, in its entirety, is:

IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD, Y’ALL

Hushpuppy at school.

A bunch of scrappy kids who are bottom of the food chain.

MISS BATHSHEBA stands before a picture of an AUROCHS.

We hear the sound of ice cracking—a glacier coming loose and falling into the sea.

MISS BATHSHEBA

Welcome to Miss Bathsheba’s Finishing School!

Welcome to the End of the World.

A lemon hits the window. Then several more.

MISS BATHSHEBA

Don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to me.

Lesson One: Aurochs. Long, long ago, when we all lived in caves, the world was swarming with aurochs. Aurochs were big and hungry and ate babies.

For an aurochs, the perfect breakfast was a sweet, juicy little cave baby. They would gobble cave babies down right in front of their cave parents. And the cavemen couldn’t do nothing about it, because they were too poor, too stupid, too small. To defy the aurochs would mean a long, painful death.

But even cavemen love their children, in their own, stupid, caveman way; and in their own, stupid, caveman way, they were going to do something about it. The cavemen took whatever weapons they could find—numchucks, or blowtorches, or just their teeth. They fell upon the aurochs, screaming, “Toro! Toro! Toro!”

Blood, and eyeballs, and intestines flew everywhere! And when the war was over, most of the cavemen lay dead. But all of the aurochs lay deader.

And now, two million years later, here y’all are. Proof that someone was taking care of you before they even knew you.

Because they loved you with their whole, huge, breaking, stupid little hearts, even way back then.

(The sound of ice cracking. Outside, grits fall from the sky. It’s kind of scary.)

MISS BATHSHEBA

Don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to me.

The universe is coming unrendered.

Things are dying ain’t supposed to die.

The fabric of the universe is coming all undone.

Don’t be scairt. Miss Bathsheba’s gonna teach y’all how to live through it.

I think this would be unstageable. Flying lemons aren’t the half of it. Also it’s very different from the film – Hushpuppy is a boy, and he and his father live in Georgia and (I think) are coded as white. It’s been turned into a thing of wonder in the cinematic process – a rare example where the film is infinitely better than the material it is based on (cf. Casablanca, also based on an unperformed stage play). But if you are curious you can get it here.

Next up are 12 Years a Slave, which features some of the same cast, and Gravity.

Doctor Who (1996) by Paul Driscoll (and Doctor Who, the-book-of-the-movie, by Gary Russell)

I missed the broadcast of Doctor Who: The Movie (as we now call it) in 1996, because I was fighting an election campaign at the time. I ought to feel grateful to the 95.9% of voters who supported other candidates in the election and liberated me to follow my subsequent career; but for some reason I hold the 4.1% who did vote for me a little closer to my heart. I did not see it until ten and a half years later, when I wrote:

It really did take me until last night to get around to watching, for the first time, the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. I think it looks fantastic. The inside of the Tardis, especially, but also the other scenes, hospital, party, city, the policeman riding his motorbike into the Tardis, the lot. The final scenes with the Master, the Doctor and the Eye of Harmony are impossible to look away from. I think it sounds good as well. The arrangement of the theme tune is the only one to take serious liberties with the original and get away with it. (Apart from the original 1963 version, the only good opening music for the TV series is the present one. Though the opening titles for the Tom Baker era are the best of the classic series.)

There is, of course huge violence to continuity which can only really be dealt with by assuming that the post-regeneration Doctor and body-transferring Master were deluded in their statements. There is really no way the Doctor can be half-human. We suspect that Gallifreyans and humans can mate (see Leela’s departure, and the follow-up in Lungbarrow), but the Doctor has made so many remarks over the years about his own separateness and difference from humanity that I must assume he doesn’t mean what his eighth incarnation says. Also the Eye of Harmony was on Gallifrey on the Tardis as far as I remember. (Though Wikipedia has some heroic retconning on this topic.) 

But in general I come down in favour. I think McGann, Ashbrook and Roberts are great. I also liked the links to continuity both forward and back – McCoy’s appearance for the first twenty minutes, McGann’s fondling a scarf as he decides what to wear; but also of course (a point that was new to me) the Doctor looking through Grace’s letterbox, a scene repeated by the Ninth Doctor and Rose in the very next episode (nine years later). Sure, the plot was just a bit threadbare, and the revival of the dead companions at the end a bit silly (if repeated for Captain Jack in The Parting of the Ways); and I can see why this did not lead to a revival of the series’ fortunes. But it is far from embarrassing.

When I came to it again at the very end of my 2009-2011 rewatch, I wrote:

And last but not quite least, forward another three years to The TV Movie. It actually has a lot of good points – the repeated motif of eyes, a lot of the business of the Doctor explaining himself to himself as well as to the rest of the world, the comedy moments mixed with SFnal horror. Daphne Ashbrook is channelling all of the female Classic Who companions, with added snogging (and in fairness a much more complicated love life than most companions arrive with); Eric Roberts is I think rather good with the somewhat two-dimensional character he is given, though of course it’s difficult for Old Who fans to accept a Master without either a beard or poached-egg eyes. The script tears big holes in continuity about the Doctor’s genetic heritage and the location of the Eye of Harmony, but I think it does make sense in its own terms (apart from the reset button that allows the dead companions to be resurrected); however, it just doesn’t lead on to great things in the way that An Unearthly Child did thirty-three years before.

Knowing what we do now about Who since 2005, The TV Movie feels like a dead end in continuity, though I was surprised by the number of elements have been first properly seen here and carried through to New Who – including some of the musical themes, which are very close to some of Murray Gold’s work. But of course that is the narrow TV viewer’s perspective; the Eighth Doctor continuity goes on in comics, books and audios, in three separate streams, all rooted in these 85 minutes of movie.

McGann, once he has regained his memory and before he gets tied up, is a rather good Doctor; he combines a wizardly young fogey with a bit of an air of surprise and almost annoyance that the world is not quite as he would wish it to be. He is at his best with Daphne Ashbrook, and fans of McGann’s audio performances will remember that the high points there tend to come with interaction with India Fisher’s Charley Pollard and Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller. Whereas the more alien Doctors of Old Who were alien because they were hiding their nature from us, the Eighth Doctor doesn’t even fully know himself. It would have been nice to have had more of him.

Watching it again, it annoyed me a bit more. The pacing is generally off, and it’s difficult to imagine how this could have developed into a successful TV series (as indeed it didn’t). All power to McGann, however, a very nice chap in real life.

The second paragraph of The-Book-Of-The-Movie, by Gary Russell, is:

For Dr Grace Holloway, still dressed in her now crumpled ballgown, it began drearily. She woke up and heaved her face up off her desk and tried to massage some life into her right cheek. It had taken the full weight of her sleeping head all night, and she imagined that someone could jab a needle right through it and she would still not feel a thing.

When I first read it in 2007, I wrote:

This was the novel of the TV movie, written by Gary Russell (two of whose other Who novels I have read; I liked one of them). Not really a lot to say about this; he has stuck fairly closely to the script, padding out the introduction a bit more, wisely not expanding on the Doctor’s demi-humanity. I see that I found the visuals and the acting particularly attractive in the broadcast version of the story, and inevitably those get lost in the transfer to the printed page. But it’s basically OK.

Actually I liked it a bit more this time around, perhaps because I re-read it so close to re-watching the original version of the story. A lot of the incidental characters are given significantly more back-story. The Doctor himself comes over as a bit more of an enigma, which was possibly wise. I’ve also read enough Who spinoff fiction now to realise that Russell is among the best of the writers in the stable. You can get it here.

Paul Driscoll’s monograph on The Movie is one of the longest so far in the Black Archive series, featuring an introduction by Matthew Jacobs and a long interview with him as an appendix. Jacobs loves it.

I am compelled and intrigued by patterns Paul can see that were never intended, and delighted by the patterns he has seen that so few people have ever spotted that were absolutely intended. / Intended or not, his observations are always valid and entertaining. This is without doubt the most thorough and complete analysis of the TV movie I have ever read – and there have been quite a few. If I had any idea what I was writing in 1995-6 was going to be analysed this deeply, I might never have started!

The introductory chapter, “Anxious Voices in the Wilderness”, frames the TV movie in the context of the times, not just the hiatus in Doctor Who production but the uncertain international situation.

The second chapter, “He’s Back, But It’s About How”, looks at the extent to which the TV movie does (and doesn’t) rely on Doctor Who continuity,

The third chapter, “Coming to America: Refining the Britishness of Doctor Who”, looks in depth at the extent to which the Doctor’s Britishness, and the show’s British roots, shaped the story. The BBC were much more involved in the scripting process than I had realised. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

As the most extreme example of the two cultures combining in Doctor Who, The Movie sheds much light on how Britishness is defined and mediated through the programme, as well as the effects of globalisation and Americanisation on the character of the show. Yet despite the movie’s explicit privileging of Britishness, Danny Nicol’s 2018 dissertation on Britishness in Doctor Who as a whole lacks any notable references to the production or story2. One possible explanation for this odd omission is that Nicol excludes from his study any elements of British culture that he considers to be non-political, such as the emotional restraint conveyed by the term ‘stiff British upper lip’3. The Movie prioritises the personal over the social. Structural or societal evils such as repressive governments or greedy multinational corporations, so often the focus of the Doctor’s ire, are entirely absent from the story. However, by Nicol’s own admission, ‘Britishness’ as a term is intrinsically political and the lack of political and social engagement in the script of The Movie is in itself a political act. Besides which, as we shall argue, the Britishness of the Doctor in the movie runs far deeper than his English accent and fondness for tea.
2 Nicol, Danny, Doctor Who: A British Alien? (2018).
3 Nicol, A British Alien, p31.

The fourth chapter, “Who Am I? Reimagining the Doctor for a New Audience” looks at the McGann Doctor’s literary roots in Frankenstein, Christ, superheroes including Batman, the Beast of Beauty and the Beast, Byronic heroes, Wild Bill Hickock and the operas Turandot and Madame Butterfly.

The fifth chapter, “The Doctor’s Nemesis”, looks not only at the Roberts Master but at the character before and since in terms of various villainous literary archetypes.

The sixth chapter, “How Well Do These Shoes Really Fit?”, looks at the continuities and discontinuities between The Movie and both old and new televised Who, starting with a strong comparison of the plot with that of The Deadly Assassin.

An appendix looks at audience reception of the movie as revealed from an online survey, and another appendix, as mentioned previously, interviews the writer Matthew Jacobs.

It’s a book that focuses very much on the script rather than on the production (except where the latter affected the former), but I still enjoyed it a lot. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

May 2018 books

A bit light on blogging in the last couple of days – a weekend on the road, plus reading award submissions has slowed down the number of books I can write up here. But anyway…

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.

A fair bit of travel that month, going straight from Sofia…

…to Bratislava:

…with trips to London later in the month and the Netherlands earlier in the month.

Anne had a significant birthday and we swung from the trees in celebration:

Very sadly, we lost our dear friend Andy Carling, and the European Commission spokesman who is now himself a European Commissioner) paid tribute to him.

https://twitter.com/EU_Commission/status/993440917515309056?s=20&t=st-kdpi5EqV2RYMm-4hv3A

I read 27 books that month.

Non-fiction: 8 (YTD 25)
Luminescent Threads, edited by Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal
The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, by Zoe Quinn
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Sleeping with Monsters: Readings and Reactions in Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Liz Bourke
The Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook, European Edition, by Harrison Monsky and the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
The Case for a New WEU: European Defence After Brexit, by Charles Tannock MEP
A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison, by Nat Segaloff (extract)
125FFBAF-B0C3-4514-8E38-66F5F86417AA.jpeg 52B418FB-D0E9-4305-B3D6-FB249B3924FA.jpeg

Fiction (non-sf): 1 (YTD 14)
Looking For JJ, by Anne Cassidy

sf (non-Who): 14 (YTD 49)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey
Darkness and the Light, by Olaf Stapledon
Donovan’s Brain, by Curt Siodmak
Akata Warrior, by Nnedi Okorafor
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire
Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith
The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang
Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher
A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge
Beyond This Horizon, by Robert A. Heinlein
Mind Over Ship, by David Marusek
In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan
Second-Stage Lensmen, by E. E. “Doc” Smith (did not finish)

Doctor Who, etc: 3 (YTD 17)
The Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat
Twice Upon a Time, by Paul Cornell
Collected Works, ed. Nick Wallace

Comics: 1 (YTD 15)

P.I.G.S., by Cecilia Valagussa

1983EA83-B241-46E5-A0D6-8E2976F31DC0.jpeg

~7,100 pages (YTD ~33,000)
16/27 (YTD 53/121) by non-male writers (Pierce/Mondal, Mead, Quinn, Le Guin, Bourke, Cassidy, Gailey, Okorafor, McGuire, Griffith, Jemisin, Yang, “Kingfisher”, Hardinge, Brennan, Valagussa)
4/27 (YTD 15/121) by PoC (Mondal, Okorafor, Jemisin, Yang)
0/27 (YTD 6/121) reread

I liked most:

  • No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin – get it here;
  • In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan – get it here;
  • The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead – get it here; and
  • Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, by Zoe Quinn – get it here.

On the other hand I completely bounced off Second-Stage Lensmen, by E. E. “Doc” Smith (as usual for that author), but you can get it here.

Lighting a candle at the chapel of the Holy Cross; and the parts-of-the-body game

It’s actually our wedding anniversary today, but we’re celebrating next weekend and so instead I’m bringing you an update on our daughters.

We sometimes take B on an excursion to the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Neerwinden, the next village to where she lives. It’s a small 18th century building, on the site of the two bloody battles of Neerwinden (in 1693 and 1793), which is open for visitors most of the time.

B generally lives in her own world, and while she doesn’t often refuse to engage with the rest of us, she doesn’t rush for opportunities to do so either. However, I got her to light a candle in the Chapel of the Holy Cross last weekend – it took three goes, but she got there in the end.

Meanwhile U continues to come to us for about a third of the time. She has recently decided that she no longer wishes to attend school; she is 19 so that’s fair enough really. She is always accompanied by a green Google Android and a spoon. Her vocabulary is limited but she knows many parts of the body.

Our family is not very much like other families. But we get by, thanks to support from a decently funded welfare state.

Saturday reading

Current
Complete Short Stories: the 1950s, by Brian Aldiss
Voorbij de Grenzen van de Ernst, by Kamagurka
Empire Of Sand, by Tasha Suri
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Weapons of Past Destruction, by Cavan Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachel Stott and Anand Setyawan

Last books finished
β1
Richard of Cornwall: The English King of Germany, by Darren Baker
Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card
Argo: How the Cia and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio 
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Next books
Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi
The End of the Day, by Claire North

Argo

Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and only two others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film editing; Life of Pi got four Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Les Miserables, but not Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hugo that year went to The Avengers, and SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award to Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other films that I have seen from that year are The Hobbit part 1, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. Also, I haven’t yet sat down and watched the whole film, but the Bollywood dance scene set in Dublin from Ek Tha Tiger is a classic.

Sorry about that. I’m just obsessed.

Anyway, back to Argo. IMDB users rate it 10th and 20th film of the year on the different rankings, which is not brilliant but not as bad as last year’s The Artist. Ahead of it on both rankings are Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit 1, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man. I would also have put it middle of the pack, but some serious issues came up that bump it to a much lower position in my ranking.

Here’s a trailer.

Returning from previous Oscar winners (and one Hugo winner): first and foremost, Ben Affleck, the star and director here, was Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love.

John Goodman, who is prosthetics expert John Chambers here (the man who invented Spock’s ears, received a special Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and also did Richard Harris’s chest for that scene in A Man Called Horse), was producer Al Zimmer in The Artist last year.

From a previous Hugo winner, Alan Arkin is Hollywood producer Lester Siegel here, and was paterfamilias Bill in Edward Scissorhands back in 1990. (Like many of us, he had more hair then.)

Finally, the Canadian ambassador is played by Victor Garber, who is genuinely Canadian, but I flagged him up previously for his role as the only identifiably Northern Irish character in an Oscar-winning film – Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic.

This is the fairly incredible story, Based On True Facts, of how the CIA with help from Canada exfiltrated six American diplomats from Tehran shortly after the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979, by posing as a Canadian film crew looking for locations to make a film version of Roger Zelazny’s great novel Lord of Light.

There are lots of things to like here. But I was dismayed to discover from the memoir by Tony Mendez, the CIA guy behind it all, that the film is significantly more white and male than the real events on which it is based. One of the trapped diplomats, Cora Lijek (who prefers Cora Amburn-Lijek) is a Japanese-American in real life; here she is with the very non-Japanese Clea DuVall who portrays her in the film. (Not that the role is very demanding; the trapped diplomats are basically peril monkeys.)

The film has only one Canadian diplomat, Ambassador Ken Taylor, and his wife Pat, who is also Asian and at least is portrayed by Chinese-Australian actor Page Leong. But in real life, the chief immigration officer and deputy Canadian ambassador, John Sheardown, played a crucial role, along with his wife Zena who is from Guyana. Here she is hosting the fugitives in her house, including Cora Amburn-Lijek on the left.

Almost everyone involved in the story on the US government side was, of course, a white man. But in the book, Mendez is very clear that one memorable meeting – where he made a remark about abortion that is preserved in the screenplay – was chaired by “an undersecretary of state, a dignified woman who was very much in charge.” It took very little research to work out that this must have been Lucy W. Benson, the first woman appointed as US Undersecretary of State; she had left office before the diplomats were successfully extracted from Iran, but would have necessarily been involved with the initial approval process. In his book, Mendez refers respectfully several times to her interventions in the crucial meeting. But on screen, everyone in the room at that meeting is male.

According to Wikipedia, when asked how he felt about being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic, Mendez (who was born in Nevada) noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish nor much of his father’s culture. He said, “I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert.” Which is fine; but Affleck did not grow up in the desert either, and his character in the film tells us that he is from New York (Affleck is from Boston), rather than Nevada. A smaller point, but Mendez in real life has three children, a daughter and two sons. In the film he has only one child. Would you like to guess… Yep.

Tony Mendez (the real one) meets President Carter

So basically, Argo whitewashes the protagonist, whitewashes one of the two significant Asian women in the story, erases the most significant black woman in the story, erases the most politically important woman in the story, and even erases the protagonist’s daughter in favour of her brother. Affleck is entitled to make the film he wants to make, and to make the artistic choices that seem right for the story he wants to tell; I too have the right to point out that a lot of these choices go in one direction and not the other, and that the story he tells is much more about white guys vs brown guys than the True Facts that it is Based On. Whitewashing, and erasing women’s agency, are par for the course in Hollywood adaptations, but I can’t remember anything this extensive since All The King’s Men removed the entire African-American population of Louisiana.

It should also be noted that the Canadians dispute the centrality of the CIA to the story, arguing that a lot more of the heavy lifting was done in Ottawa and especially by their embassy in Tehran. And it’s also clear from Mendez’ published memoir that the last-minute hitches portrayed in the film – mission almost cancelled by cold feet in Washington, Iranian security deducing the plan and storming the air traffic control tower in a futile attempt to prevent the departure – are pretty fictional. I’m more forgiving of these changes; it’s a drama, not a documentary, after all. But the Canadians do have a right to feel miffed. (As do the shades of Roger Zelazny and Jack Kirby.)

Apart from that, I quite enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed that the opening sequence described the historic relationship between Iran and the United States in detail, giving context to the hostility that led to the capture of the embassy and the imprisonment of the hostages. Those who were around at the time will remember the apparent impotence of the Carter administration, and the impact of the crisis on his prospects for re-election; for Middle East experts, of course, the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA had already set the pattern for US involvement in the region for seventy years. After that opening sequence, the narrative of the film is very one-sided, with frothing Iranians vs innocent Westerners, but credit where it’s due – this political context was crucially missing from the Vietnam films I’ve watched in this sequence, and from The Hurt Locker.

The filmography is particularly good, with hand-held cameras among the crowd storming the embassy bringing it into focus, and the Hollywood, Washington and Tehran locations convincingly depicted. The music is suitable and not oppressive – in the hands of another director we’d have had dramatic chords all the way through to tell us what to feel.

A relatively small element of the film, but I was very struck by the story’s very cynical take on Hollywood, especially after last year’s dewey-eyed The Artist, which also featured John Goodman. The parallel between the make-believe world of Movieland and the deception of espionage is well drawn, and also Arkin and Goodman play the Hollywood scenes for just the right amount of laughs to offset the serious subject matter of the rest of the story.

Chambers: [after hearing plan to exfiltrate the house guests] So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Mendez: No.
Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

The film was enjoyable, but the erasure is so shocking that I am bumping it way way down my list to eighth last, just above All The King’s Men and below Forrest Gump.

I also read the original Wired article by Joshua Bearman which inspired the film (paywalled) and Mendez’ memoir Argo. The third paragraph of the Wired article is:

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.

It tells much the same story as film and book, with maybe a little more emphasis on the experience of the fugitive diplomats.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the grandly titled Argo: How the Cia and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio is:

From the beginning, the Carter administration faced a number of challenges. When Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council threw their support behind the takeover, there was basically nobody for the U.S. government to negotiate with. Carter tried sending two emissaries, but Khomeini refused to allow them to even enter the country. With overt diplomacy off the table, Carter then turned to his military planners, who gave him a similarly bleak assessment. If the United States were to launch a retaliatory strike, the Iranians might execute the hostages. The chance of rescue also seemed remote. Geographically, Iran was extremely isolated and the U.S. embassy compound was located in the heart of the capital city. It appeared there would be no way to get the rescuers in and back out without the Iranians knowing.

Strictly speaking, the film was based on the relevant parts of Mendez’ earlier memoir, Master of Disguise, which were then extracted, expanded and updated as the book Argo to capitalise on the film. This updating was not complete. John Chambers’ identity is concealed behind a pseudonym in the book, even though the film uses his real name and anyway he had been dead since 2001, so it hardly mattered by 2012.

But it’s a satisfying read, if obviously partisan. The book is clear about the fact that the protagonist (played by a white actor in the film) is from a Hispanic background, even if he doesn’t choose to identify in that way; that one of the fugitive diplomats was Asian-American (also played by a white actor in the film); that one of the key people on the Canadian side was a black woman (erased entirely from the film); that the senior US official who authorised the plan was a woman (erased entirely from the film); that the protagonist had a stable marriage with two sons and a daughter (rather than the broken relationship and one son portrayed in the film) and that the last-minute hitches depicted in the film are entirely fictional.

The book also gives useful context about Mendez’ previous experience of disguise and exfiltration, including various capers in Iran itself, in other Middle Eastern countries and in south-east Asia. He is frank about the shortcomings of the USA’s governmental wiring diagram and comments approvingly that the Canadians with a lighter government structure were able to make things happen much more quickly than the Americans. And even without the fictional last-minute threats to the success of the mission, the truth is quite dramatic enough. You can get it here.

Next up: that year’s SFWA Bradbury winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)