October 2023 books

This is the 240th month in which I have been keeping records of every book that I have read, and so it brings to an end my series of regular flashbacks to past months. (If you want to know what I’ve been up to in the last few weeks: basically, I went to China for Chengdu WorldCon.) Some analysis of 20 years of bookblogging tomorrow, perhaps, as it’s a day off for me. Meanwhile here are the tallies for the last 31 days:

Non-fiction 7 (YTD 71)
Living with the Gods, by Neil MacGregor
A Life of My Own, by Claire Tomalin
About Time 9, by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford
Earthshock, by Brian J. Moss
The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, by James F. McGrath
Politics: Between The Extremes, by Nick Clegg 

Non-genre 4 (YTD 25)
Leave Me Alone, by Murong Xuecun
Fate, by Zhao Haohui
No, But I Saw the Movie, ed. David Wheeler 
Winter, by Ali Smith

SF 8 (YTD 154)
Nine Black Doves – Volume 5: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny
Locklands, by Robert Jackson Bennett
2024, by Robert Durward 
“Even the Queen” by Connie Wilis
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis 
Cart and Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones
Life Ceremony, by Sayaka Murata

Doctor Who 1 (YTD 28)
Doctor Who: Earthshock, by Ian Marter

Comics 1 (YTD 24)
Facing Fate: Breakfast at Tyranny’s, by Nick Abadzis et al

7,100 pages (YTD 77,600)
8/21 (YTD 134/309) by non-male writers  (Tomalin, Ail, Smith, Willis x2, Wynne Jones, Murata, illustrators of Breakfast at Tyranny’s)
3/21 (YTD 42/309) by a non-white writer (Murong, Zhou, Murata)
4 rereads (“Even the Queen”, Wyrd Sisters, Doomsday Book, Doctor Who – Earthshock)
344 books currently tagged unread – down 8 from last month. At this rate I will clear the lot some time in 2027.

Reading now
The Road to Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Coming soon (perhaps)
Vortex Butterflies, by Nick Abadzis et al
Doctor Who – the Androids of Tara, by David Fisher
Doctor Who and the Hand of Fear, by Terrance Dicks
The Hand of Fear, by Simon Bucher-Jones
Dalek, by Billy Sequire
All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation, by Diarmaid MacCulloch
The J.R.R. Tolkien Miscellany, by Robert S. Blackham
Three Plays, by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart
Many Grains of Sand, by Liz Castro
Giants at the End of the World, by Johanna Sinisalo
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, by Nick Montfort
My Real Children, by Jo Walton 
One Foot in Laos, by Dervla Murphy 
The Hidden Lives of Tudor Women, by Elizabeth Norton
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Jaren van de olifant, by Willy Linthout
Marking Time, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
A Long Day in Lychford, by Paul Cornell
The New Machiavelli, by H. G. Wells
Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez
Fevered Star, by Rebecca Roanhorse
Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray et al
Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas
“Georgia On My Mind”, by Charles Sheffield
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

A Life of My Own, by Claire Tomalin

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The three of us would live in two rooms, a bigger one in which we slept, and a small kitchen/living room. To me, it all seemed agreeable, and for the next two years we lived above the pianos, with the sound of Beethoven sonatas filling our ears. Dorrie must have sometimes played and taught work by other composers, but Beethoven came before all others, and she gave me an early education in his piano music that has kept me listening to it ever since. Serious as she was about music, she was also high-spirited and sociable. She liked to organize parties and play jokes, and soon after we moved into her house she gave a nightingale party, telling her friends there was a nightingale in her back garden, and my sister and I were given the job of keeping her guests indoors while she slipped out into the garden with a special nightingale whistle to amaze them. She never made us feel unwelcome, although it must have been hard not to have her house to herself. This was the summer of 1943. I was ten.

I have previously hugely enjoyed Tomalin’s biographies of Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft and the young H.G. Wells, so I had pretty high hopes for this autobiography, published in 2017 when she was already 84 (she turned 90 in June). And it pretty much fulfilled them.

Tomalin is the daughter of an English musician and a French writer, who married too young and were already on the verge of separation when she was conceived. She too married young, finding a journalist chap while a student at Cambridge, and the relationship deteriorated into on-again-off-again until he was killed covering the Yom Kippur war, exactly fifty years ago last month. But they had five children, two of who died, one as a baby, the other in her early 20s; and their surviving son has a serious disability. She tells us much less about her second husband, Michael Frayn, which is a little disappointing. But there is still plenty of personal material to draw on, with her literary endeavours a secondary theme.

The hilarious contact lens scene from Noises Off was inspired by something that actually happened to Tomalin while on holiday with Frayn.

From the 1993 film. Interestingly the words “contact” and “lens” are not mentioned in the script – the actors show what has happened without actually telling us.

Writing of her time at Cambridge, she says that she gave up writing poetry because she felt she was not good enough at it; but this “left an emptiness in my life which has never quite been filled.” I find that rather sad. Her biographies are superlative, but I guess she feels that there was something more creative that was possible and that she missed out on. There is still time. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that list is All Things Made New, by Diarmaid MacCulloch.

Sunday reading

Cart and Cwidder, by Diana Wynne Jones
Life Ceremony, by Sayaka Murata
The Road to Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Last books finished
No, But I Saw the Movie, ed. David Wheeler
Winter, by Ali Smith
Politics: Between The Extremes, by Nick Clegg
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Next books
Facing Fate: Vortex Butterflies, by Nick Abadzis et al
All Things Made New, by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, by Nick Montfort

Chengdu Worldcon 4: The people you meet along the way

(This follows three previous posts about Chengdu WorldCon: Doctor Who, the pandas, and other panels and events.)

The very first person I met in Chengdu, at the spanking new Tianfu Airport east of the city, was a volunteer with a placard with my name on. They kindly took a commemorative photo.

It was a real thrill to discover that 尼古拉斯·亨利·懷特 – Nígǔlāsī Hēnglì Huáitè – is the Chinese version of my name. There was some confusion as to which was my family name and which my given name, but I was making the same mistake all the time in the other direction. I resolved to at least learn to write 尼古拉斯 by the end of the trip. (See below.)

Communication in China in general is greatly accelerated by the use of translation apps. When I mentioned that I got stuck behind a group of Austrian students trying to argue their way into the Forbidden City, the conversation was taking place by means of the museum staffer and the students typing furiously at each other on their phones. I noted that they were using English and not German for the non-Chinese end fo the exchange. There are several translation apps, and I didn’t develop a strong preference for any of them, but I did resort to them in case of grievous emergency.

This is probably also the place to mention that security on the way into the convention was heavier than most people are used to; you had to step through an electronic scanner and then a bored security guard waved a metal detector over your front, limbs and back and motioned you to proceed.

Readers who have memories of shopping in central Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s will be scratching their heads at the idea that this is anything out of the ordinary, and it was less intrusive than I had experienced at Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City a few days earlier. But Arthur Liu comments that it was excessive by Chinese standards, in a piece well worth reading in translation.

Once inside the Zaha Hadid-designed venue, however, you got an immense buzz of untramelled activity. Like a lot of people I tried filming walkthroughs, but unlike many people I didn’t have an easy way to upload them at the time. This is my look at the main concourse and fan area.

There is immense curiosity about Westerners in China. Vince Docherty and I found that as we were staffing the Glasgow 2024 stall (with help from Ann Gry), people were coming up to us all the time to ask for autographs, selfies or (if they were journalists) interviews. Ken MacLeod, who is one of the Guests of Honour for Glasgow 2024, also helped out at the stall. When Vince put on his tartan, he was mobbed by adoring throngs.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, massed ranks of uniformed schoolchildren were brought to the convention by their schools, waving cheerfully to us as they passed.

We wondered if Vince was benefiting from his resemblance to Chengdu Guest of Honour Robert J. Sawyer; but I have photographic confirmation that they are in fact different people.

I did my best to work on my Chinese penmanship.

Judge for yourself.

Changing topic a little: Chengdu city and Sichuan province (once known in English as Szechuan) are well known for their spicy food, which locals kept warning me about, though it was well within my range of tolerance. I befriended an English teacher, I, and her little boy G, and on the Friday evening, they and G’s music teacher father L took me out to the Lakeside Ecology Hotpot, generally known by its Chinese name 茅歌水韵, Maoge Shuiyun, in the Suoluo International Ecology Park about 10 km southeast of the convention centre.

Sichuan hotpot is sheer delight. You get a shallow communal bowl of simmering spicy sauce, and a large number of strips of raw meat (and other ingredients) which you dangle in the boiling and highly flavoured water until they are cooked. I especially loved the thinly sliced pork kidney, and tripe, which I don’t remember ever having had before. Unfortunately I did not think to take a photo until after we had finished our meal.

Meanwhile there was a floor show on a platform in the middle of the small lake which was surrounded by the restaurant, featuring music, dance and even a clown, which I must say had little G’s full attention while we grownups talked about adult things such as Europe, China and education. I and L are from Yibin, 260 km south of Chengdu and the capital of one of the Sichuan province prefectures. It has a population of 4.6 million, greater than Croatia and not much less than Ireland; and I had never heard of it.

I strongly recommend Maoge Shuiyun if you happen to be in northwestern Chengdu. You don’t have to believe me; see the ecstatic reviews here. I enjoyed the convention very much, as I hope previous posts have made clear, but it was also nice to get away for an evening with friendly and hospitable company.

Back at the convention, I was very pleased to meet two Chinese writers in particular. My colleagues in Beijing had told me not to show my face in their office again unless I got a selfie with Liu Cixin, Guest of Honour of Chengdu Worldcon and author of The Three Body Problem; I tracked him down at the Hugo after-party, and he duly obliged.

At the pre-Hugo reception, despite its flaws, I was able to track down Shanghai-based writer Xin Weimu, who you may remember I raved about when writing up the Astounding finalists. Although her fiction has not yet been translated into English, she is completely fluent (having studied in Yale and Georgetown) and has written some non-fiction about aspects of Chinese society, which you can read here. We had a long conversation which was very educational for me. (You will note that I adapted my Doctor Who sash, given to me for the panel a couple of days earlier, for a different sartorial purpose.)

As Jeremy Szal points out in his must-read report of the convention, this was probably the most international Worldcon ever. I was maybe one of two Irish participants, and as far as I know the only Belgian participant (I had both passports with me); but other countries and continents were represented in numbers that I have never seen before. I made and renewed many other friendships among my fellow international guests – guys and girls, I love you all! (Well, almost all.)

Unfortunately I didn’t get many photos (apart from those already posted here), and I’m not going to name more names because I will forget people. In fact, the only other picture I have of talking to new friends is with Lisa Trombi of Locus and Arthur Liu of the Chinese Science Fiction Database, at the Hugo party, blurred by the bright lights. Symbolic, perhaps, and it seems an appropriate place to end.

Facing Fate: Breakfast at Tyranny’s, by Nick Abadzis et al

Second frame of the third of the four issues collected here:

Two two-part stories here, the first being the titular “Breakfast at Tyranny’s”, where the Doctor with companions Gabby, Cindy and the deity Anubis are held captive with their memories being harvested; and a more exciting second half, “Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”, set in ancient China with Nestenes. The art here is not always up the usual standards, I’m sorry to say. You can get it here.

Chengdu Worldcon 3: Panels and events

Apart from the Doctor Who panel, previously mentioned, I moderated one other panel discussion, was a participant in another and attended another two at Chengdu Worldcon. (I also spent a lot of time with Vince Docherty staffing the Glasgow 2024 desk.) Brief notes here from those panels, with photographs from the official convention photographer, and also from the opening ceremony and the Hugo ceremony (I missed the closing ceremony as I had booked an early evening flight, assuming that it would be in the afternoon).

The panel that I moderated was on the topic, “What Should I Have Read in 2023?” We had a really multinational group – left to right, Yasser Bahjatt from Saudi Arabia, Vince Docherty who is a citizen of the world, Lisa Trombi from the USA, Pierre Gevart from France and Dip Ghosh from India. You will note that none of us is Chinese; after the five panellists had given their recommended reads, I turned it over to the audience to recommend what we had missed in terms of local talent. Unfortunately I was too busy moderating to keep notes, so I hope someone else did. Pictures here, from roughly #650 to #800.

Vince Docherty and I both spent a lot of our time at the convention staffing the Glasgow 2024 desk. There were moments that we had to take a break, however, and one of those was for the presentation on future Worldcons. Photos are here, from roughly #340 to #500, but they seem to have got jumbled out of order as the first pictures on the page from this panel are of the last person to speak, which was me. Vince spoke on behalf of Glasgow 2024 next year, and I spoke for the Dublin 2029 bid.

The first panel that I actually attended was a reflection on Brian Aldiss’s early visits to China, with Wendy Aldiss playing a clip from his audio diary arriving in Beijing and showing some of the photographs he had taken with the other British guests on his trip. Who were they? Oh, nobody you’d have heard of, just Iris Murdoch and David Attenborough. Aldiss writes about his time in Chengdu in The Twinkling of an Eye with clear affection but also a clear gaze.

Wu Xiankui, now the president of the writers’ organisation of Sichuan province and an inaugural winner of China’s Galaxy Award back in 1986, remembered that he had been Brian Aldiss’s gofer on one of the early visits. Hua Long showed us the fanzines and newspapers in which Aldiss’s visits to China had been reported, and publisher Yao Xue talked about his available work in China. The moderator was Yan Ru, China’s Doctor Who superfan.

Shots from the panel are visible on this page starting at image 277 and ending at image 400. There’s a good shot of me in the audience here, but this is a nice one of the panel, followed by one of Wendy and the Helliconia trilogy.

The other panel that I attended was on “The Joy of being a First Time Hugo nominee”, chaired by Chris Barkley (who was a first-time finalist last year, and went on to win this year), with four other first-timers including Richard Man (who also went on to win), Wole Talabi, Marie Vibbert and Kuri Huang. I got to know all of them in the course of the convention (I knew Chris already). Photos from the panel here, roughly from #200 to #360.

This is the first year since 2018 that I have not myself been involved with administering the Hugo Awards, and I must say that I found it very helpful to step back and get the (overwhelmingly positive) feedback from the people who are most affected about what it means to them. Sometimes when you are wrangling statistics and eligibility criteria you can get decoupled from the human dimension, and I stood up in the audience to say so.

At all of the above panels, interpreters at the back of the room were providing simultaneous translation via earpieces. I believe that this was not the case for the majority of panels; as reported previously, the Doctor Who in China panel had a sole translator whispering into my ear (and my neighbour’s).

Simultaneous translation was also provided for the opening ceremony and the Hugos. We foreign guests were assembled at the foyer of the Sheraton and then bussed over to the formal entrance of the convention hall for both. (A lot of people also went to the Galaxy Awards in the Sheraton on the Thursday night, but I gave it a miss.) The opening ceremony was really dazzling, with a set of fantastic dance performances, an illusionist and a choir singing the convention official anthem, all introduced by noted Chinese anchorwoman Tian Wei, whose CCTV “World Insight” show I have guested on a few times.

Not on any of the recordings that I have seen, but still memorable, was a moment when Liu Cixin was talking to two twenty-somethings whose class had written to him as kids ten years ago, telling him and us how his work had inspired him. Liu was visibly tearing up with emotion.

Here is the best of the dances, an amazing performance with masks and aerial ballet:

And here is the convention anthem which closed the ceremony, with apologies to those who it has been earworming for the last ten days. At the end, and I am not making this up, the curtains at the back of the stage parted to reveal a flock of glowing drones, flying over the lake outside, in formation, in the shape of a spinning planet with rings, followed by various panda shapes. Actually that brief description doesn’t do justice to it; watch for yourself.

Someone was heard to mutter, “Winnipeg would not have been like this.” It may have been me.

On the Hugos. Alison Scott, a finalist for Best Fan Artist, and her colleagues at Octothorpe, which was up for Best Fancast, had appointed me as their acceptor in case they won, so I attended the Hugo pre-reception, the ceremony and the after-party in that capacity. (This is not secret and they discuss it on the latest episode at 15:12.) All my previous times attending the pre-reception and after-party had been at conventions when I was on the Committee and/or the Hugo team, so it was a learning experience.

In summary, the pre-reception was the least satisfactory that I have been to, the Hugo ceremony had its good and less good points, and the after-party was the best that I have attended.

To deal briefly with the pre-reception at the Sheraton: there was no booze and, more important, no substantial food, for a bunch of anxious people who had been told to turn up at 5pm (after a rehearsal earlier in the afternoon), knowing that the ceremony would not end until after 9. (9.20, as it turned out.) I nipped out immediately to grab some fried chicken for myself in the hotel foyer, but as a consequence I missed the group photos for the two categories where I was involved. Snacks were eventually provided as we went into the ceremony, but it’s rather difficult to eat discreetly in the theatre, and of course we did not know that they would be available until we got there. The pre-Hugo reception does need at least some decent savoury finger food to keep people going. I had some great conversations, though, and will cover those in my next post.

Going into the ceremony, I was surprised to find that I had been seated far away from the main bloc of finalists, among a bunch of people who were not directly connected to the awards at all. I (correctly) did not expect either Alison or Octothorpe to win, but it is a bit off for that message to be delivered by way of seating plan. Another acceptor had been seated even further away than me, and that did surprise me, as I thought they had a much better chance of winning (and indeed they did; they have already written up their experience of the ceremony elsewhere and did not mention this incident, so I won’t identify them here). Both of us sneaked over to vacant seats in the main bloc as soon as we could, to sit with our buddies and enjoy the show. (And in my friend’s case, to accept a Hugo.) I am sure it was thoughtlessness rather than malice, but it was not the best start to the ceremony for me; and the leading Chinese magazine SF World had a similar but worse experience.

Apart from that, it was all very nice and collegial, starting with some shamanistic drumming to get us all in the mood, category announcements interspersed with video clips and more dance performances, and the Big Heart Award going to the much deserving Bobbi Armbruster. The whole thing came in at about 2h20m; I’m not a pare-it-to-the-bone purist and this was fine for me. I have my doubts about the Best Professional Editor (Long Form) category, but having been talking to Lindsey Hall earlier in the day, I was thrilled for her when she won it. The convention produced a short video featuring the names of finalists (which minimises the risk of the mispronunciation problems that have come up before). There was a good bit of business with a runner bringing the envelope with the results to the announcer on stage – an excellent idea from the points of view of both stagecraft and security. However we did also have an awkward moment where the hosts talked over an acceptance video, and there was the Riverflow incident which most of us did not find out about until afterwards.

I’ll write up the actual results when we get the full figures. The whole ceremony is online here: https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1eN411x7hh/ You’ll see me in shot for some of the winner announcements.

The after-party, however, was sheer joy. Booze: check. Food: check. Fun: definite check. Traditional crafts, decent food, a great atmosphere, lots of people posing with their Hugos (or other people’s), I had previously attended the Hugo Losers Parties in 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2022, and three of those four were very disappointing – in two cases because of lack of decent catering, and in one case because many people were shut out. 2017 was great fun, but in a venue that was crammed to the gills, probably dangerously so. This year, we had adequate space, more than adequate food and drink, and enjoyable entertainment (with the decibels at a level that my middle-aged ears were able to cope with). I stretched my legs walking back to the hotel with Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf afterwards, and stayed up in the Sheraton bar until far too late. With more financial resources available than most European or American conventions, Chengdu were able to achieve magic on occasion.

Again, I’ll report in my next post on some of the conversations I had over the course of the evening, but I’ll finish here with a video clip of Chinese dancers performing ancient Scottish choreography.

The Founders Trilogy, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Second paragraph of third chapter of Foundryside:

She cringed as she did so— she hated changing clothes. She stood in the alley and shut her eyes, wincing as the sensations of mud and smoke and soil and dark wool bled out of her thoughts, and bright, crunchy, crispy hemp fabric surged in to replace them. It was like stepping out of a nice warm bath and jumping into an icy lake, and it took some time for her mind to recalibrate.

Second paragraph of third chapter of Shorefall:

“Sign there,” said Moretti. He winced as he touched the side of his face. “And there. And there…”

Second paragraph of third chapter of Locklands:

There was what Berenice and her compatriots thought of as conventional scriving, wherein one convinced everyday objects or materials to disobey reality by writing elaborate arguments upon them, arguments that called upon other arguments and definitions to make their case, all stored nearby in a lexicon. This was the art of scriving that Berenice had grown up with, the industry that had formed the empire of Old Tevanne, ran fortresses like Grattiara, and had once allowed the merchant houses to capture the whole of the world.

This trilogy was on the Hugo ballot for Best Series this year, and I finished two of the three before the deadline and put it third (well, fourth behind No Award at the top). I very much enjoyed Bennett’s previous Divine Cities trilogy; this is a different fantasy world, but one where magic and machinery intersect according to a series of complex rules. So often in books like this, worldbuilding stops at the point where the writer needs it to in order to drive the plot; I really don’t get that sense here, I feel that the writer is playing fair with us all the way through, and the barriers that the characters face because of how the world has been created don’t seem artificial. There’s also a good spectrum of emotional engagement, romance, parent-child dynamics, deep and committed friendships; and Bennett’s not afraid to kill off important characters as he goes. And the sense of place is very well realised, whether it’s a cityscape, a blasted heath or a vast natural fortress.

I felt that the middle book was not quite as strong as the first and last; the baddy seemed a bit too powerful and that constrains the plot a bit. But otherwise this is a good series of novels set in an unusually thoughtfully constructed world. You can get them here, here and here.

Chengdu Worldcon 2: The pandas

Chengdu has many points of interest, but probably the most famous is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to the north of the city. I was lucky enough to go on a trip there last Saturday morning, hoping that these shy creatures might appear for us. Most of the pandas in Chengdu have been rescued and in turn get released into the wild. They are short-sighted and not really aware of the gaze of visitors; the first group that went to see them, on the Tuesday, were unlucky as the pandas mostly dozed off due to the good weather. As we arrived at the base, I wondered if the sculpture at the entrance might be the best view we got of them.

But no, we were fortunate, and the temperature being just a notch above 20° meant that several them were wandering around their enclosures, munching bamboo. One was sprawled out on his or her platform, indifferent to the admiring crowds.

Another sat with his back to us, but at an angle where you could selfie.

My best shot of all was the very last one I took, of a panda casuallymunching away in an enclosure within the visitor centre.

The institute also apparently has red pandas, but we didn’t see any, and I won’t complain. To be close to the giant pandas for an hour was one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced.

I don’t know what it is about them that stirs (almost) everyone to go “Awww!”. Certainly I am not immune myself. One of my favourite childhood toys was a stuffed panda, which I unimaginatively called “Panda”. There is something about these gentle creatures that appeals to the better parts of our nature.

My companions on the trip included Wendy Aldiss and her son L, and Carole and Ken MacLeod.

Much later on, in the bar after the Hugo ceremony, Carole suggested that next year’s Worldcon in Glasgow should make a similar trip to the Haggis Research Centre. I passed the suggestion to Glasgow 2024 Chair, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, and I think I can honestly say that all possible efforts are being made to make this happen.

Nine Black Doves – Volume 5: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny

Second paragraph of third story (“Mana from Heaven”):

There was a wide window at the rear of my office, affording an oblique view of the ocean. The usual clutter lay about—opened cartons oozing packing material, a variety of tools, heaps of rags, bottles of cleaning compounds and restoratives for various surfaces. And of course the acquisitions: Some of them still stood in crates and cartons; others held ragged rank upon my workbench, which ran the length of an entire wall—a row of ungainly chessmen awaiting my hand. The window was open and the fan purring so that the fumes from my chemicals could escape rapidly. Bird songs entered, and a sound of distant traffic, sometimes the wind.

The penultimate in the complete collection of Zelazny’s short fiction, bringing together stories published between 1979 and 1990. Huge Zelazny fan that I am, I must record that I had read all of the stories before – more than half of them are in the 1989 collection Frost and Fire, though I have mislaid my copy of Author’s Choice #27 which had two of the more obscure ones. The books also includes Zelazny’s poetry, which to be honest is not all that special, and several treatments and sketches for unmade films and unwritten books.

But there are a couple of points that made me glad to have bought this. The first is that the text of the Hugo-winning “24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai” is in fact illustrated by the relevant 24 woodcuts from Hokusai’s famous series. It’s only monochrome but it makes a big difference to your appreciation of the story. Also, Christopher Kovacs’ detailed chronology of what was going on in Zelazny’s life in the years from 1982 to 1990 is illuminating. Amusingly, Michael Whelan agreed to do the stunning cover art for the collection after discovering that one of his other pieces had been ripped off without credit or payment for an earlier Zelazny book.

I am also really glad to have found this video of Zelazny reading his own work in 1986 – the short story “LOKI-7281” and an extract from “Blood of Amber”. The image and sound quality are not great, but it’s great to see him dominating the room while leaning nonchalantly on his elbow; he was having fun, and so were his audience. He was 49, and had less than a decade left to live.

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next up is the sixth and last in this series, The Road to Amber. But you can get Nine Black Doves here.

Chengdu Worldcon 1: Doctor Who in China

Before I start: Hooray! New Doctor Who episodes on 25 November, 2 December and 9 December!!!!!

I’ve been pondering how best to write up my experiences at Chengdu WorldCon last week. In summary, it was an amazing experience; tremendous hospitality from our Chinese hosts, a chance to engage with an ancient culture, and I saw the pandas.

Most convention reports just go chronologically through the two, or three, or four, or five days of the convention. I’ve decided to take a more thematic approach, looking at some of the things I really liked in a bit more detail.

Many aspects of Chengdu Worldcon were great fun. I will write about the things I especially enjoyed: the pandas, the set-piece events, and the friends I made along the way. (I enjoyed the WSFS Business Meeting even less than usual, so I won’t write about that.)

The thing that gave me the most unexpected joy was the love for Doctor Who shown by the Chinese fans. I have to give huge credit here to Yan Ru, 晏如, an English Chinese teacher from Wuhan, who may well be the leading Doctor Who fan in China. We had made contact before the convention, and had a lot of conversations about our shared passion.

Yan Ru invited me to participate in the Chengdu Worldcon panel on “Doctor Who in China” (in Chinese « 神秘博士 » 在中国 ) along with English fan Joseph B, and three other Chinese speakers. Joseph and I were I think the only non-Chinese participants in the room, which was packed.

The panel started with a joyous chant of the Doctor Who theme tune – all Doctor Who panels should start like that! – and a translator whispered to Joseph and me in English, as the other panelists and the audience engaged in intense discussions in Chinese. We spoke in English, and most people seemed to understand perfectly well (and those who didn’t were tolerant). I should add that a lot of the Chengdu Worldcon panels had simultaneous translation, but in this case, probably because Joseph and I were last-minute additions, that didn’t happen. There are some brilliant photos here from #154 to #322 – I especially like that they concentrate on my upper body rather than my tummy – here are two good ones.

With six of us on the panel, and only an hour, we only answered three questions. Not very surprisingly, the first two were 1) Who is your favourite Doctor? (a lot of love for Christopher Ecclestone in China) and 2) What does Doctor Who mean to you?; but slightly more surprisingly the last question was 3) what is your favourite Doctor Who book?

The Doctor Who books appear to be relatively bigger on the inside in China than in Europe or the USA. Yan Ru was running a Doctor Who stall (along with everything else) and sold out of the books on the second last day of the convention. I should say also that the main shopping area of the convention was graced by a large TARDIS, beside a screen showing the current Doctor Who trailer on continuous loop. It too sold out by the last day.

I had been assigned a young volunteer to keep me straight in the unfamiliar world of the convention, a young local student of English and French, who made sure that I went to all of the places I was supposed to go to on time, and also sorted out my phone issues and located my lost laundry.

As a parting present, I got her a signed copy of Yan Ru’s translation of Jac Rayner’s Ninth Doctor Novel Winner Takes All (and a cuddly panda). She seemed very pleased.

I’m glad to say that Yan Ru got home to Wuhan and discovered that she had been promoted at work, in recognition of her translating Who-ology and Winner Takes All into Chinese. She also received the prize for the best Chengdu Worldcon fan party for the Doctor Who party on the Friday night (which I missed for reasons which will be explained). More power to her.

I normally set my blog posts to go live after my working hours, but for this and the other Chengdu reports I’m setting then for lunchtime in Brussels, so that my Chinese friends can read them in the early evening.

September 2023 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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.

This is the second last post in this series. Six days from now is the last day of this month, and the end of a four-year project to re-chronicle twenty years of reading. When I started, I was dredging up memories of sixteen years before; now it’s only a couple of weeks. It’s good to have a project with a defined end.

So what did I do and read last month? I had two trips to the UK, one for a Worldcon planning meeting at Heathrow, and one combining a family party in Northern Ireland with work meetings in London.

I wrote about the Post-industrial Pagodas, and about the consequences of the decline of X, formerly Twitter.

I managed to read 21 books:

Non-fiction 6 (YTD 64)
Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality, by Jaron Lanier
The Night of the Doctor, by James Cooray Smith
Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars, by Catherine Clinton
The Day of the Doctor, by Alasdair Stuart
Dispatches from Chengdu, by Abdel LeRoy
Charmed in Chengdu, by Michael O’Neal (did not finish)

Non-genre 4 (YTD 21)
Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver
Keats and Chapman Wryed Again, by Steven A. Jent
Letters from Klara, by Tove Jansson
Death Notice, by Zhou Haohui

SF 7 (YTD 146)
The Bruising of Qilwa, by Naseem Jamnia
Ocean’s Echo, by Everina Maxwell
The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd
Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Rupetta, by N.A. Sulway
Shorefall, by Robert Jackson Bennett
What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, by Rose Macaulay

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 27)
Extraction Point, by MG Harris
Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat

Comics 2 (YTD 23)
War of the Gods, by Nick Abadzis et al
A Doctor in the House?, by Jody Houser et al

5,600 pages (YTD 70,500)
11/21 (YTD 126/288) by non-male writers  (Clinton, Kingsolver, Jansson, Jamnia, Maxwell, Shepherd, Sulway, Macaulay, Harris, illustrators of War of the Gods, author and illustrators of A Doctor in the House?)
3/21 (YTD 39/288) by a non-white writer (Zhou, Jamnia, Shepherd)

What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, by Rose Macaulay

Second paragraph of third chapter (I’m sorry, this is a long one):

Ivy looked from the End House to her father, surpliced at the lectern, reading the Proper Lesson appointed for Brains Sunday, Proverbs 8 and 9. “Shall not wisdom cry, and understanding put forth her word? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way, in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors…. O ye simple, understand wisdom, and, ye fools, be of an understanding heart…. Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars” (that was the Ministry hotel, thought Ivy)…. “She hath sent forth her maidens, she crieth upon the highest place of the city” (on the walls of the Little Chantreys town hall). “Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither…. Forsake the foolish and live, and go in the way of understanding…. Give instruction to a wise man and he will get wiser; teach a just man and he will increase in learning…. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the holy is understanding….” Which set Ivy Delmer wondering a little, for she believed her parents to be holy, or anyhow very, very good, and yet…. But perhaps they had, after all, the beginning of wisdom, only not its middle, nor its end, if wisdom has any end. She looked from her father, carefully closing the big Bible and remarking that here ended the first lesson, to her mother, carefully closing her little Bible (for she was of those who follow lessons in books); her mother, who was so wonderfully good and kind and selfless, and to whom old age must come, and who ought to be preparing for it by going in for the Government Mind Training Course, but who said she hadn’t time, she was so busy in the house and garden and parish. And half the things she did or supervised in the house and garden ought, said the Ministry of Brains, to be done by machinery, or co-operation, or something. They would have been done better so, and would have left the Delmers and their parishioners more time. More time for what, was the further question? “Save time now spent on the mere business of living, and spend it on better things,” said the Ministry pamphlets. Reading, Ivy supposed; thinking, talking, getting au fait with the affairs of the world. And here was Mrs. Delmer teaching each new girl to make pastry (no new girl at the vicarage ever seemed to have acquired the pastry art to Mrs. Delmer’s satisfaction in her pre-vicarage career)–pastry, which should have been turned out by the yard in a pastry machine; and spudding up weeds one by one, which should have been electrocuted, like superfluous hairs, or flung up by dynamite, like fish in a river…. But when Mrs. Delmer heard of such new and intelligent labour-saving devices, she was as reluctant to adopt them as any of the poor dear stupid women in the cottages. It was a pity, because the Church should lead the way; and really now that it had been set free of the State it quite often did.

I happened to pick this up at Eastercon, the year before before the plague. It was written during the First World Ward and set very shortly after it, in a Britain where eugenics has been legislated into public policy, and the Ministry of Brains controls who people can marry so that war will become impossible once stupidity has been bred out of the population. There’s a good deal of satire here, and some good observation of what happens when popular support for a political initiative collapses after a strong start; but it’s also a sympathetic observation of human nature and human behaviour, trying to put society together again after the catastrophe of war. Macaulay’s take on global politics is a bit naïve, but she’s good on the human heart; and this slim book was clearly a source of inspiration for both 1984 and Brave New World. Recommended. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019. Next on that pile is One Foot in Laos, by Dervla Murphy.

The Night of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor, by James Cooray Smith, Alasdair Stuart and Steven Moffat

So, back in November 2013, I was having a dull Thursday afternoon in the office when my social media started pinging with news of a new short Doctor Who story on Youtube. I fired up the link and watched it; and watched it again. I don’t think that you can ever recreate the impact of Paul McGann, 18 seconds in, saying “I’m a Doctor – but probably not the one you were expecting.”

The continuity issues raised by precisely which companions were mentioned led me into completely inaccurate speculation about the plot of The Day of the Doctor.

That evening, still excited, I was reading through Big Finish’s online magazine and unthinkingly tweeted the final paragraph of their interview with Tom Baker, which turned into my most retweeted tweet ever (to the point that Buzzfeed ranked it ninth in their list of 16 pictures we can probably stop tweeting in 2014).


Nine days later, we drove to Germany for the showing of The Day of the Doctor in a cinema near Cologne. I wrote:

The cinema is part of the massive Hürth Park shopping complex, and we found food without difficulty at their in-house restaurant. They were showing [TheDay of the Doctor in three different screens, and ours, which was the emptiest when I booked it, was full on the night, so I guess that all three sold out. Sitting beside me were three young women speaking Russian to each other, who gasped with appropriate appreciation in all the right fannish places(such as “Bad Wolf” and “I don’t want to go”). I wondered how far they had come to watch it. Probably not as far as us on the night, anyway.

We cinemagoers also got a lecture from Dan Starkey as Strax about cinema etiquette, showing unfortunates who had been arrested by the Sontarans for using their mobile phones or for trying to record the event, but also rejoicing in the eating of popcorn; followed by Matt Smith and David Tennant demonstrating the 3D while bantering with each other. (It’s perhaps a little regrettable that the 3D glasses were not returnable, at least not where we are; I can’t imagine that we’ll ever use them again.)

And then on with the main feature. Well, I liked it a lot. As everyone has been saying, John Hurt slipped into the part of the missing incarnation utterly smoothly, and in just the right way, portraying a veteran in his own incarnation aware that there would be others to come, and mocking the future Doctors very effectively. I was also relieved that Tennant dialled it down a bit; I felt he sometimes pushed too far in his own stories. And Smith seemed totally energised by the experience, though he must have already decided to go when it was being made.

I was actually glad that Billie Piper didn’t play Rose again (and delighted with the way the script covered that); she actually does well when she gets decent material to work with. Jenna Coleman is a delight. I liked the UNIT subplot (Yay, Jemma Redgrave and Ingrid Oliver!) more than the Elizabethan subplot, but enjoyed both (Joanna Page excellent, if improbable, and softening one of the stupider lines from The End of Time). I remembered the Zygons fondly, and indeed rewatched Terror of the Zygons last weekend to refresh myself; the negotiating the deal moment was perhaps a bit contrived in plot terms, but theoretically sound from the diplomatic perspective. And the shedding of the Time War baggage, both in terms of plot and in terms of liberating the Doctor from what we now know was more than just survivor’s guilt, and possible reintroduction of the Time Lords and Gallifrey is excellent for the future of the show’s storylines.

Not to mention the fan service:

A terrific way of including the former Doctors
(who did Harnell’s voice, by the way?)

Just one look from his eyes, but
already we know it will be different.

I was spoilered for this, which is probably
just as well as I don’t think I could
have remained dignified otherwise.

In the global scheme of things, this was one of Moffat’s better Event episodes and probably the best anniversary special. (I know that Moffat has declared that there is only one previous anniversary special, The Five Doctors; he is entitled to his opinion, but I definitely count The Three DoctorsSilver NemesisDimensions in Time and Zagreus, plus perhaps one or two others.) He has always been good at witty banter, and at identity confusion; he hasn’t always been as good at fitting these things to the frame of a wider show, but he did it this time, and I’m a happy fan.

I rewatched both Night and Day of the Doctor in preparation for writing this post, and they both held up really well. The Night of the Doctor packs so much into six and a half minutes. The plot threads of The Day of the Doctor just about tie up properly (this is one of Moffat’s skills). It’s all great fun and rekindled my enthusiasm.

It’s a little sad that there isn’t quite the atmosphere around the 60th anniversary as there was for the 50th, but it’s understandable why; in 2013 we had the first significant milepost since the 2005 reboot, and the show was on a high; but the Chibnall years did not reach the same level of public interest. It should also be said that I’ve heard from sources involved with the production that some at the BBC felt that 2013 went too far, with An Adventure in Space and Time, The Five-ish Doctors Rebooted, and the awful After-party alongside the actual specials. I’m sure that there will be extras around the anniversary this year, but not as many as ten years ago. (Dismayed by the rumours that the next episode will be shown on 11 November, as I will be out of town that day.)

Stephen Moffat’s novelisation, Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor, actually covers both Night and Day. The second paragraph of the third chapter (numbered Chapter 1) is:

‘He’s here,’ I said, keeping tight rein on the panic levels in my voice. ‘I can hear him, moving about. He’s in Time Vault Zero. The Doctor is in Time Vault Zero.’

The second paragraph of the seventh chapter (numbered Chapter 3) is:

I am writing this account so that perhaps, finally, I can leave it behind.

When it came out in 2018, simultaneously with three other New Who novelisations, I wrote:

Steven Moffat is, oddly enough, the one writer of the four new novelisations who had not previously written a Doctor Who novel. Yep, his previous written Who prose, despite his being the show-runner for the whole of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor eras, and having generated screenplay for more Doctors than any other writer (even if you don’t count the extra five in The Curse of Fatal Death), amounts to only a few short stories, starting with “Continuity Errors” in the 1996 collection Decalog 3: Consequences, and going on to “What I Did In My Christmas Holidays – By Sally Sparrow“, the short story from the 2006 Annual that became the TV episode Blink.

Of course, I really enjoyed the 2013 50th anniversary special, which in retrospect we now see as a last salute to the Tennant era from almost the end of the Smith era. And I am glad to report that this is by far the best of the four new Doctor Who novels published last month. Moffat has veered further from the script than any of the other writers; the chapters are told by alternating narrators, in non-sequential numbers, interspersed with reports from other characters (Chapter Nine, significantly, is missing); the basics of the storyline (starting with the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration, and ending with the Curator) remain the same, but the transmission to the printed page has been done in a very different way. And there are some lovely shout-outs to odd bits of continuity – Peter Cushing’s Doctor is canonicalised; there is a desperate attempt to explain the black and white era. In general, it’s just good fun, and it feels like the process of writing the book was much more enjoyable for the author than was notoriously the case with the original script. If you are a Who fan, you should get it here.

I stand by that. Several more novelisations down the line, Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor remains the best of them – so far.

The 49th and 50th Black Archive monographs on Doctor Who are on The Night of the Doctor, which is James Cooray Smith’s fourth in the series, and Day of the Doctor, by the appropriately named Alasdair Stuart, who I also know as a Hugo finalist and commentator on sf and fandom. To jump to the end, they are both very good and enhanced my appreciation still further for two stories that I already liked a lot.

James Cooray Smith’s monograph on Night is only 73 pages long, but that’s roughly 11 pages per minute of script; compare the volumes on the seven-part stories that are barely a page per minute! There’s a lot to say about these short few scenes, of course, and Smith says most of it.

The first chapter, ‘I’m a Doctor, but probably not the one you were expecting’, reminds us (as if we needed to be reminded) of the excitement around the 50th anniversary and the surprise launch of the mini-episode; and looks at the returns of past Doctors (which turns out to be an even more timely topic in 2023).

The second and longest chapter, ‘What if I get bored? I need a television’, debates whether or not Night counts as TV Doctor Who, looking at other edge cases, of which there are a lot more than you might have thought.

The third chapter, ‘The universe stands on the brink’, looks briefly at the origins of the War Doctor. Its second paragraph is

This assumption, however, fits rather less well with other aspects of ‘The Night of the Doctor’, and the possible discontinuities that result are worth consideration for what they imply about the story and its relationship with The Day of the Doctor, particularly with regards to how much time passes between them. In ‘The Night of the Doctor’, Ohila describes the perilous situation in which the universe finds itself at this point in the Last Great Time War in very stark terms, saying that ‘The war between the Daleks and the Time Lords threatens all reality. You are the only hope left,’ and later insisting that, ‘The universe stands on the brink. Will you let it fall?’

The fourth chapter, ‘What do you need now?’, looks further at the concept of the War Doctor.

The fifth chapter, ‘I don’t suppose there’s any need for a Doctor any more’, looks at the Time War and the character of Cass.

The sixth chapter, ‘Physician, heal thyself’, looks at the last words of various Doctors and at the Doctor as Jesus.

The seventh chapter, ‘Doctor no more’, looks at how the episode fits into the wider Steven Moffat’s wider concept of who and what the Doctor is.

It’s a little cheeky of the publishers to offer this slim volume at the same price as others in the series which are almost three times as long, but the completist will want it, need it and enjoy it anyway. You can get it here.

Alasdair Stuart’s The Day of the Doctor is twice as long. It starts with an introduction, setting out the author’s stall: this is a story involving metafiction and death, and combining Old and New Who. Usually I write my own chapter summaries, but in this case the author has done it for me so I will lazily cut and paste, inserting the chapter titles:

The first chapter [“The Doctor Can See You Now”] looks in more detail at the concept of postmodernism and Who’s own unique flavour of it. Fans of a certain stripe will probably be thinking the word ‘discontinuity’ and they are not wrong.

The second chapter [“The Barn at the End and the Barn at the Start”] talks about the barn, what it represents to the show and also, crucially, the fictional spaces it allows the show to step into. It’s also going to look at the concept of postmodern and metafiction and what that, and 1970s BBC Shakespeare adaptations, have to do with Doctor Who.

The third chapter [“A Man Goes to War”] looks at the War Doctor. He’s arguably the most important incarnation of the Doctor and also one of the least well known. Here we’re also going to explore the idea that each one of these incarnations represents an era of the character.

Just interrupting to say that the second paragraph of the third chapter is:

But before all that, we need to talk about Christopher Eccleston.

Going back to the chapter summaries:

The fourth chapter [“The Man Who Regrets”] turns the attention to the 10th Doctor. Poster boy for the series’ triumphant return! Big-haired righter of wrongs! Lonely god and occasional near mass murderer. He’s also the representation of the show’s past, which is an odd, interesting thing for him to be.

The fifth chapter [“The Man Who Forgets”] focuses on the 11th Doctor and how this is a story which is a prelude to his final bow in The Time of the Doctor (2013) and how it sets up the future of the show. A future which is far more introspective, for both Doctor and Daleks, than it first seems.

The sixth chapter [“Impossibilities, Moments, Revolutionaries and Evolutions”] examines Clara, the Moment, Kate Stewart and Osgood and why the future of the show is carefully, subtly encoded into those four women.

Finally, [in te seventh chapter, “Midlife Crisis of the Daleks”] we take a look at the Daleks and how The Day of the Doctor is a fictional structure through which the past, present and future of both the Doctor and his nemeses are examined and defined.

There’s also an appendix looking at how the 2020 story The Timeless Children affects our understanding of Day of the Doctor now, including also the “Morbius Doctors”.

This is all good, meaty stuff, well worth adding to the thinking fan’s shelves, and you can get it here.

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

Sunday reading

No, But I Saw the Movie, ed. David Wheeler 
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis 
Winter, by Ali Smith

Last books finished
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford
Earthshock, by Brian J. Moss
“Even the Queen” by Connie Wilis
The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, by James F. McGrath

Next books
Politics: Between The Extremes, by Nick Clegg 
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
Life Ceremony, by Sayaka Murata

Venomous Lumpsucker, by Ned Beauman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

A boyfriend of Resaint’s had once joked, not entirely fondly, that she would be happiest in some kind of high-security lock-up, one hour of human contact a day and otherwise left to her own devices. And OK, fine, maybe she would have been better equipped for it than the average person, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed her time under house arrest on the Varuna.

A vicious yet funny satire on global politics and the environmental crisis, sort of Kim Stanley Robinson but with sæva indignatio added. It’s mostly set in a near-future Europe from which Britain is (mostly) absent; the role played by the Brits become slowly apparent along with much else that is hinted at in early chapters. Written with passion and confidence, and you’ll be thinking of it for ages.

The shortest of the six finalists for this year’s Clarke Award, and in fact the very last of the 96 submitted books to reach my shelves, and the one that we agreed on as the winner. Strongly recommended, of course. You can get it here.

Beijing: the Forbidden City, and people wearing pretty dresses

I am in Chengdu for Worldcon, but had a couple of days in Beijing first – mostly for a couple of work meetings, but I took time on Sunday afternoon to go and see the Forbidden City, the old imperial palace complex at the heart of the capital.

(By the way, if you have been trying to contact me, I may not have seen your message or may not be able to respond. Google, Facebook, X, Mastodon, WhatsApp, Signal, and a bunch of others are blocked here. There are odd exceptions – Bluesky, my work email, and even this blog, perhaps because it is privately hosted. I can post to Twitter and Mastodon – and this blogpost will automatically go on both – but can’t easily read replies and cannot respond at all.)

Getting to the Forbidden City from my hotel was already an adventure. The hotel advised that it would take ages to get a taxi, so I braved the subway system. Bad news: the ticket machines literally do not work for foreigners, because you have to scan your identity card to get one. Good news: the human ticket desk is always staffed and it only costs 3 yuan (and it’s about 7 yuan to the euro). Also good news: the station names are given in English as well as Chinese. I did not fancy my chances at picking out 天安门西 from a sea of unfamiliar characters. Though it was only six stops on a direct line, which is within my arithmetical skills.

Even the process of getting in is somewhat ceremonial. You need to book a ticket at least a day in advance (but you only have to specify the day of your visit, not the exact time); everyone’s ID cards were checked as we got out at the Tiananmen West metro station; they were checked again at the outer periphery of Tiananmen square; and at the inner entrance to the square there is a full scan of your belongings and a friendly patdown. Tiananmen Square itself is an impressive and evocative public space, but that’s rather difficult to photograph.

On the north wall of the square, which is the south wall of the Forbidden City, the Great Leader observes us all. Lots of tourists were posing for photos with him in the background, some of them saluting, either military-style or with a clenched fist. I asked a friend later if they were being ironic, but she thought it was perfectly serious.

Two more patdowns on the way into the palace complex, and I got stuck behind a group of Austrian students arguing (unsuccessfully) that they were entitled to a discount due to being on an official exchange, and it is a very long walk from the subway, but once I got in, I must say it is just as spectacular as I had expected. The Last Emperor was one of my lockdown Oscar watches, so I felt a shock of recognition. It is an amazing huge architectural / ceremonial / religious / governmental complex. I took photos of all the buildings, but no image can quite convey the experience of being there.

I tried a couple of selfies but was alarmed at just how out of place the bearded white guy looks. Also my selfie game still needs improvement.

Most of my fellow tourists appeared to be Chinese. A number of them were women dressed in traditional costume. I wondered if some or all of them were museum staff, though some seemed younger than you would expect a full-time employee to be. But two local friends in two separate conversations told me that it’s a newish trend to dress up in historically accurate clothes and go and pose at the Forbidden City on a Sunday afternoon – and then they both confidently identified which era each of the dresses belonged to. Cosplay on a broad scale, I guess. The cellphones may not be 100% historically accurate.

These two actually thought I was asking them to move aside to get a clear shot of the architecture, before they realised that I really wanted them in the picture.

And at the back of the Palace, a little girl was playing hide-and-seek with her slightly bigger sister, and winning.

I regret that I came rather late in the day. Jetlag made it difficult to leave my hotel as promptly as would have been ideal, and the Forbidden Palace closes firmly at 5.30; and there was not enough time to look around the inside of any of the art exhibitions. But having read Puyi’s autobiography, and seen the film, and also read a fair bit about his fearsome grandmother Ci Xi, it was interesting to see the places where they had lived.

The Palace of Heavenly Purity, where Puyi was brought up

Having been kicked out, I walked over to the foreign language bookstore on Wangfujing Street. It is a rather lacklustre affair, with a rather old-fashioned assortment of books and not much effort put into presenting them. But it gave me a chance to experience the prevalence of (mostly Western) big consumer brands in China. By now my feet were killing me and I retreated back to my hotel, which incidentally is right beside the spectacular headquarters of CCTV.

I have made maybe half a dozen guest appearances on CCTV’s show “World Insight with Tian Wei” over the years. This was to have a surprising resonance once I got to Chengdu; but we’ll get to that anther day.

August 2023 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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.

For the first time in four years, we made our family trip to Northern Ireland, this time by the direct ferry to Rosslare from Dunkirk.

We did many things on holiday, including local megaliths, Derry and nearby attractions, a quick trip to London for me to the Clarke Award ceremony, and an early wedding anniversary celebration.

And I finally put together my photos of the stucco ceilings of Jan Christiaan Hansche.

Unwinding from an intense period, I read 45 books that month.

Non-fiction 10 (YTD 58)
Representatives of the People?: Parliamentarians and Constituents in Modern Democracies, ed. Vernon Bogdanor
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden
Gifted Amateurs and Other Essays, by David Bratman
Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Lifespan, by Digby Tantam 
The Stones of Blood, by Katrin Thier 
Arachnids in the UK, by Sam Maleski
Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road, by Kyle Buchanan (did not finish)
Will We Ever Speak Dolphin?, ed. Mick O’Hare
Still Just a Geek: An Annotated Memoir, by Wil Wheaton
The Return of Eva Perón with the Killings in Trinidad, by V. S. Naipaul

Non-genre 4 (YTD 18)
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman: Including the Brother, by Flann O’Brien
Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver

SF 17 (YTD 139)
A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L’Engle
Akata Woman, by Nnedi Okorafor
The Outcast, by Louise Cooper
Bloodmarked, by Tracy Deonn (did not finish)
Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, by Charlie Jane Anders
Collision Course, by Robert Silverberg / Nemesis from Terra, by Leigh Brackett
Nettle and Bone, by “T. Kingfisher”
Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods, by Catherynne M. Valente
What Moves the Dead, by “T. Kingfisher”
A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow
A Rumor of Angels, by Dale Bailey
Into the Riverlands, by Nghi Vo
Even Though I Knew the End, by C.L. Polk
Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire
“Beggars in Spain”, by Nancy Kress
Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Doctor Who 4 (YTD 25)
The Shadow Man, by Sharon Bidwell
Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion, by Peter Harness
Doctor Who and the Stones of Blood, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who – The Stones of Blood, by David Fisher

Comics 7 (YTD 21)
Sins of the Father, by Nick Abadzis et al
Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, by Tom King, Bilquis Evely and Matheus Lopes
Cyberpunk 2077: Big City Dreams, by Bartosz Sztybor, Filipe Andrade, Alessio Fioriniello, Roman Titov, and Krzysztof Ostrowski
Monstress vol. 7: Devourer, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Major Matt Mason: Moon Mission, by George S. Elrick
DUNE: The Official Movie Graphic Novel, by Lilah Sturges, Drew Johnson, and Zid
Daleks, ed. Marcus Hearn

10,000 pages (YTD 64,900)
21/42 (YTD 115/267) by non-male writers 
6/42 (YTD 36/267) by a non-white writer 

Several great books here. From the Hugo ballot, the two novellas Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk, which you can get here, and What Moves the Dead, by “T. Kingfisher”, which you can get here; and the graphic novel Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, by Tom King, Bilquis Evely and Matheus Lopes, which you can get here. Also, newly published Gifted Amateurs and Other Essays, by David Bratman, which you can get here.

On the other hand, I found nothing to like about Hugo finalist Cyberpunk 2077: Big City Dreams, by Bartosz Sztybor, Filipe Andrade, Alessio Fioriniello, Roman Titov, and Krzysztof Ostrowski; you can get it here.

The Anomaly, by Hervé le Tellier

Il est tôt, cinq heures du matin, Louis dort. Dans deux heures, elle le réveillera, to wake, woke, woken, elle préparera le petit déjeuner, to eat, ate, eaten et oui, elle reverra avec lui les verbes irréguliers anglais, au programme de sa cinquième. Mais pour l’instant, Lucie remonte en urgence cette scène d’intérieur d’un Maïwenn qu’elles doivent revoir ensemble avant midi. La nuque douloureuse, les yeux asséchés, elle se lève. Le grand miroir sur la cheminée reflète Pimage d’une femme petite et mince, aux formes aériennes de jeune fille, à la peau pâle, aux traits fins, aux cheveux bruns coupés court. Elle porte sur son fin nez grec de grandes lunettes en écaille, qui lui donnent un air d’étudiante. Elle marche jusqu’à la fenêtre du salon. Lorsqu’elle se sent débordée par la vacuité, c’est toujours à cette vitre froide qu’elle va poser son front. Ménilmontant dort, mais la ville l’aspire. Ce qu’elle voudrait, c’est abandonner son corps et se fondre avec tout ce qui est dehors.It’s early, five in the morning, and Louis’s asleep. In a couple of hours she’ll wake him – to wake, woke, woken – and make breakfast – to eat, ate, eaten – and yes, she’ll help him go through the irregular English verbs in his seventh-grade curriculum. But for now Lucie hastily re-edits the interior scene that she and the director MaIwenn will be looking at together later this morning. She stands up, her neck aching and her eyes dry. The large mirror above the fireplace reflects a small, slim woman with the ethereal figure of a girl; pale skin, fine features, and short-cropped dark hair. On her delicate Greek nose she wears large tortoiseshell glasses that make her look like a student. She walks over to the living-room window. When she feels overwhelmed by the emptiness of it all, this cold glass is where she always comes to rest her forehead. Menilmontant is asleep, but she feels the irresistible draw of the city. She wishes she could abandon her body and dissolve into everything outside.
translated by Adriana Hunter, who also translated The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

It’s unusual for a translated novel to be shortlisted for the Clarke Award, and it’s also unusual for the Prix Goncourt to go to a science fiction novel. This is a really good idea turned into a really good novel: an incoming aircraft turns out to be an exact duplicate of one that has already landed, months previously, and we get to explore the problem of dealing with people who are exactly the same but several months apart in experience, with a smattering of We Are Property. Le Tellier is a leading exponent of the Oulipo school and on this basis I will look for more from that source. Like all the finalists, recommended. You can get it here.

The Red Scholar’s Wake, by Aliette de Bodard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Everything was dancing and wavering, her thoughs saturated with too much information, too many people, too many grievances and old records. What steadied her was the job: the analysis of the data so she could find the proof Rice Fish needed. It might not be something she’d ever thought she’d do for pirates, but it was a familiar job: a steadying task she could keep focused on.

A space opera romance, where the extra wrinkle is that the central relationship is between a human woman and the AI of a pirate spaceship. The setup is clear and the emotional perspective of the characters totally convincing. Also the economic and political basis for pirate spaceships controlled by artificial intelligence is pulled off with assurance. Not a book you could imagine Arthur C. Clarke writing, but one you could well imagine him enjoying. Recommended, like all the Clarke finalists. You can get it here.

Metronome, by Tom Watson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘Lionel, you mean?’

Two people on an isolated island, exiled with each other for the crime of conceiving a child without a permit; and then their world changes. The build-up of tension just from the routine of isolation is well done; and the shift of perspective as the outside world reasserts itself is really superb. Not a comfortable read, nor a quick one, but very nicely executed. Recommended, like the other Clarke finalists. You can get it here.

Plutoshine, by Lucy Kissick

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Again like an old god – or perhaps an old cat – she was also irascible, capricious, and possibly the least desirable companion for an extended mission. She had also, after ten years, yet to let him forget the time he once flooded her lab as a graduate student. Lucian welcomed any other company.

This was the most Clarkean of the finalists for this year’s Clarke Award. It’s set in the near future on Pluto, where a young mute girl has discovered a deep secret and cannot tell anyone. The interpersonal relationships and science are handled very deftly; there’s a real sensawunda, grand planetary setting (even Pluto is pretty big if you are the size of a small human), isolated base under threat from its own people. A first novel, believe it or not; the author is a nuclear physicist. She assured me that she had not read Imperial Earth, which was the book it reminded me of (and I have a guilty fondness for that one). Recommended, like all the finalists. You can get it here.

Sunday reading

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford
No, But I Saw the Movie, ed. David Wheeler 

Last books finished
Fate, by Zhao Haohui
2024, by Robert Durward 
About Time 9, by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
Doctor Who: Earthshock, by Ian Marter

Next books
Earthshock, by Brian J. Moss
Politics: Between The Extremes, by Nick Clegg 
“Even the Queen” by Connie Wilis

The Coral Bones, by E.J. Swift

I’m in China for Worldcon, so blogging for the next few days has been set up in advance to cover this year’s Clarke Award finalists. (Right now, I should be on the direct flight from Brussels to Beijing.) I’ve already posted my quick reviews of 69 of the submissions, and will hope to come back some time for the other 21…

The Coral Bones by E.J. Swift had by far the fewest owners on either Goodreads or LibraryThing, so few that I was a little suspicious that it might have come from a vanity press. But in fact the explanation is that the publisher sadly went out of business and therefore wasn’t able to do the usual promotional activities. This is a real shame, because the book is a gem. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

She checked the mirror again. The horizon was empty, not a hint of approaching storm. But the dust was always there, at her back. She saw it even on days like today, when there was nothing but the wheel and the road and the infinite red and the depleted husk of country – and yes, the infinite blue. She focussed ahead, let the sky settle in her gaze. Some things never let you go, no matter how far you drove.

It’s set in three timelines, the past, the present and the future, in and around Australia. (Apparently the author has not actually been to Australia, but I couldn’t tell.) The unifying theme is environmental apocalypse, as observed by women scientists; the three plots are each engaging on their own terms, and then the linkage at the end is very satisfying. A real warning about what we are doing to our world and ourselves. It is very much in keeping with the spirit of other recent Clarke winners, and Sir Arthur himself would have appreciated the diving scenes; personally I was especially grabbed by the nineteenth century science. Recommended (like all of the Clarke finalists). You can get it here.

July 2023 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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.

One of the rare months (apart from pandemic times) when I did not leave Belgium, or even venture far from my normal Brussels-home-Tienen axis. I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut’s muse, and the top and bottom rated Doctor Who episodes on IMDB.

I did not write it up properly at the time, but Anne and I went to the Musée Fin-de-Siècle in Brussels and were really impressed by a couple of the pieces on display:

Emigrants, by Eugène Laermans
Promenade, by Theo van Rysselberghe
Marketplace, by James Ensor
The Dragonfly, by Isidore Verheyden

Crucially, this was the month that I stopped shaving. Ten days in, it was looking promising, though one or two of my colleagues were more advanced than me.

I read 35 books that month.

Non-fiction 9 (YTD 48)
Amy Dillwyn, by David Painting
After the War: How to Keep Europe Safe, by Paul Taylor
The Popes and Sixty Years of European Integration
How to End Russia’s War on Ukraine, by Timothy Ash et al
Blackpool Remembered, by John Collier
Drawing Boundaries, eds John C. Courtney, Peter MacKinnon and David E. Smith (did not finish)
The Deadly Assassin, by Andrew Orton
The Awakening, by David Evans-Powell
One Bible, Many Voices: Different Approaches to Biblical Studies, by S.E. Gillingham

Non-genre 7 (YTD 14)
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
A Burglary, or, Unconscious Influence, by Amy Dillwyn
Jill, by Amy Dillwyn
Jill and Jack, by Amy Dillwyn
Nant Olchfa, by Amy Dillwyn
The Murder on the Links, by Agatha Christie
Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Poetry 1 (YTD 4)
The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran

SF 12 (YTD 122)
The Memory Librarian, ed. Janelle Monáe
Atlantis Fallen, by C.E. Murphy
In the Serpent’s Wake, by Rachel Hartman
Ancient, Ancient, by Kiini Ibura Salaam
Mermaids and Other Mysteries of the Deep, ed. Paula Guran
The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
Tofu Brains: Life on Zeeta 21, by Lars Koch
There Will Be War Volume X, ed. Jerry Pournelle (did not finish)
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Knights of God, by Richard Cooper
The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 21)
Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who – The Awakening, by Eric Pringle

Comics 4 (YTD 14)
Arena of Fear, by Nick Abadzis et al
Saga, Vol. 10,  by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Once & Future Vol 4: Monarchies in the UK, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora and Tamara Bonvillain

8,200 pages (YTD 54,900)
17/35 (YTD 94/225) by non-male writers (Gillingham, Dillwyn x 4, Christie, Sayers, Monáe, Murphy, Hartman, Salaam, Guran, Kiernan, Novik, illustrators of Arena of Fear, Staples, Bonvillain)
2/35 (YTD 30/225) by a non-white writer (Gibran, Salaam)

The best of these was The Cider House Rules by John Irving; you can get it here.

Rupetta, by N.A. Sulway

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Margery and her husband, Guilhabert, had only one child. She was a child of love and as such bore all the signs of a blessed conception. Her eyes were bright and aware, her small hands curious and slim-fingered, her complexion pinkly perfect. Every inch of her tiny body was perfect. Margery would sit in the garden with her; beside the flowering herbs and the small apple tree they had planted on the day of her birth, and sing the few small songs she knew. Guilhabert doted on her, as fathers often do with their daughters. He would pick flowers for his two beloveds, and for me, each day. He would wander into Gauzia’s room before daybreak and place the small posy by her sleeping face, touching her flushed cheeks with just the tip of his finger.

This won the Tiptree Award in 2014. It’s a complex and richly written story set in several different centuries, involving a woman who is part-human, part-machine and the entanglements that she gets into. I’m afraid it’s a rare “Meh” from me in this sequence of reading. I don’t like cute anthropomorphic androids anyway, and I didn’t quite have the energy to get into the layers of writing. You can get it here.

The Tiptree Honor List included eight novels, a short story by Aliette de Bodard and a music album by Janelle Monáe. I have read two of the novels, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and Hild by Nicola Griffith, and liked them both more. (Personally I don’t think Hild is sf; but it was also a finalist for the Nebula.)

That was the year that Ancillary Justice won almost everything – Hugo, Nebula, Clarke and tied for the BSFA Award with Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth Powell. The Adacent by Christopher Priest and God’s War by Kameron Hurley were both on both the BSFA and Clarke lists.Also the year of Gravity.

The following year, the Tiptree Award went jointly to The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne and My Real Children by Jo Walton; the BSFA Award to Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie; and the Clarke Award to Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. That was my first year as a Clarke judge, and I read them all (they were all submitted) but did not write any of them up at the time. So I will return to them now.

Three books set in Chengdu: Death Notice and Fate, by Zhao Haohui; and Leave Me Alone, by Murong Xuecun

I will be in Chengdu next week for the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, and have looked for some contemporary Chinese fiction set there. (Having been deeply unimpressed by a couple of American memoirs.) There’s not a lot available in English, but there is more than nothing.

Death Notice and Fate, by Zhao Haohui, are the first two volumes in a trilogy, featuring the Chengdu Criminal Police and a ruthless serial killer (or killers). The second paragraph of the third chapter (in the original Chinese) of Death Notice is:

郑郝明两年前在市里买了一套商品房,把家人都搬入新房之后,原来公安局分给他的住宿楼便空了下来。不过这老屋子也没有完全闲置,有时候办案晚了,郑郝明便会回到这里休息过夜,一是周围的同事多,联络啊、行动啊都方便;同时也免得打搅到早已熟睡的妻女。后来久而久之,这老屋子就有点儿成为他的“第二办公室”了。Two years prior, Zheng had moved his family out of police housing to a quiet new apartment far from the tumult of downtown Chengdu. Rather than let the aging police apartment lie idle and unused, Zheng still spent nights there whenever he worked overtime. It allowed him to keep in touch with colleagues, and helped to avoid disturbing his sleeping wife and daughter. He called it his second office.
translated by Zac Haluza

Here’s the second paragraph of the third chapter of Fate. To my surprise, I found that the original text has a bit more characterisation in it, which did not make it into the published translation.

罗飞神色淡定,从他脸上很难看出心中的情绪,只是那双眼睛微微有些发红,显然这是因为熬夜而造成的疲惫效果。他将一份档案袋推到了宋局长面前,在后者拆取档案的同时汇报道:“昨天下午,一名陌生男子伪装身份闯入了刑侦档案室,在他复印带走的十多份档案资料中,这一份正是他真正的目的所在。从他的行为方式以及留下的仿宋体签名来看,我们相信这个男子就是Eumenides。”Captain Pei passed a folder to the commissioner.
‘An unidentified man gained access to our PSB archives yesterday afternoon while masquerading as an officer. He made copies of thirteen files, but this was the one he wanted. From his behaviour and his signature, I’m confident that this man is Eumenides.’
Captain Pei’s expression was calm, and it was difficult to see the emotions in his heart from his face, except that his eyes were slightly red, which was obviously the effect of fatigue caused by staying up late. He pushed a folder in front of Commissioner Song, and while the latter was unpacking the file, he reported: “Yesterday afternoon, a strange man disguised his identity and broke into the criminal investigation archives room. He copied and took away more than ten files, but this one was his real purpose. Judging from his behavior and his signature, we believe that this man is Eumenides.”
OriginalZac Haluza translationMy translation

I have to be honest; I didn’t get a strong sense of Chengdu from these two. There is a certain genre about killers who are superbly able to outwit the forces of law and order – The Silence of the Lambs is the most obvious, but I also recently read Thirteen by Steve Cavanaugh – and there were several scenes where I found it very difficult to suspend my disbelief – though a couple of these are in fact fairly well grounded in local scenery, a murder carried out in full view of the police in front of the Deye Building in Citizens’ Square, and another historical gruesome death at Mount Twin Deer Park, none of which are locations that I have been able to identify on the map. The series is a good enough example of its kind, the tensions between cops from the city and periphery, university graduates and non-graduates, and men and women, all well portrayed against a somewhat implausible backdrop; the means and motivation of their opposition remaining unclear. The situation is sufficiently generic that the first book was adapted without difficulty into a film made and set in Hong Kong, released (after much delay) earlier this year. You can get the two books here and here.

Leave Me Alone, by Murong Xuecun, is a different matter. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

听得我一阵腻歪,知道这都是董胖子的把戏,这厮肯定跑到太监面前装乖孙子,笔记本摊在腿上,脖子九十度向前梗起,一脸肥胖的微笑,汇报完思想动态,再顺便踢我个撩阴腿,“陈重嘛,业务能力强,但和同事工作配合不太好。”我扭头看看他,这厮很风骚地穿一条背带裤,正伏在桌上记笔记。我暗暗骂了一句,王八蛋,心想这也值得你往本子上记?I had an ominous hunch that this was Fatty Dong’s trickery.
That prat had naturally rushed to sit at the front with the eunuch from Head Office. He looked like an attentive grandson with his notebook spread on his knee, his fat face one big smile. When the time came to make his own report, he gave me another subtle jab in passing: ‘Manager Chen, your skills are great, but you’re not such a good team player.’ I looked at him: the arsehole was wearing an elegant pair of braces, and was bent over writing something in his notebook. I cursed him silently: Are those farts really worth writing down?
translated by Harvey Thomlinson

The novel’s title in Chinese is “Chengdu, Forget Me Tonight“. It is a dark and steamy story of a car salesman who is cheating on his wife with his best friend’s fiancee, among others, and viciously jockeying for position with his colleagues. It was originally published on the online bulletin board of the company where the author worked as, er, a car salesman. Edited to add: The author read this review and contacted me to say that actually he was in HR, not sales, but also that the protagonist was based on a real colleague.

It’s brutally honest self-observation by the main character; not quite Joyce or Salinger, but a gripping window into a society which is not really so very different from ours. Although I suppose a lot of the action could happen anywhere, the setting feels firmly rooted in the sordid suburbs and old-fashioned rural periphery of Chengdu, and the couple of locations that I checked out did seem to really exist. It’s a shame that the protagonist is such an asshole, but of course that is really the point. You can get it here.

The author has since been exiled from China for writing about state corruption and the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we’ll hear more of him in the future.

An interesting feature of all three of these books is the ubiquitous internet bulletin-board, which can be either public or internal to a company or organisation. Zhao Haohui’s Captain Pei reflects on the impact on public discourse:

After all, China was changing. Citizens had more options for obtaining information and were more open-minded than ever. The best way to steer public opinion would be to provide people with more information and let them draw their own conclusions.

Fate, Chapter 13

Radical stuff.

The 2023 WSFS Business Meeting

The agenda is out for the WSFS Business Meeting to be held in Chengdu. (Here, and here in Chinese.) A lot of amendments to the rules and the constitution are proposed; some of them are good; some of them are pointless; and some of them are wrong. Everyone will agree on that much but not everyone will agree on which is which. The proposals are as follows:

A.1.1.A Marks Authorization

Sensible tidying up of the responsibilities for protecting the WSFS Marks.

A.2.1.A  Discussion Items

Allows the Business Meeting to discuss issues raised by its own committees without having to vote on them. This would have avoided the need for some of last year’s shenanigans.

A.2.1.B  Business Meeting Contingencies

and other changes

Makes sensible provision for cases where the Business Meeting does not take place or is not quorate. Let’s hope it’s never used, but sensible to have.

A.2.1.C  Consistent Change

and more along these lines

Clears up a lot of language which had been made obsolete by the shift to WSFS members as a concept. Won’t satisfy any who opposed that shift but makes life easier for the rest of us.

B. Financial reports

😲 Not a matter for voting, but wow, this year’s NASFic, Pemmicon, had expenditure 40% higher than its income. Doesn’t really endear me to the concept of the NASFiC (on which, more below).

C.1 Bilingual Debate at Business Meeting

🤷 Good as far as it goes to say that bilingual debate should be provided for at a Business Meeting outside an Anglophone country, but not sure that it needs to be encoded into the Constitution in this way, and not sure that this wording is really strong enough if it does.

D. Eligibility extension

Three films that were not widely distributed in 2021 and which the Business Meeting can declare to be eligible for 2022. I am always inclined to be generous.

E.1 The Zero Per Cent Solution (referred for ratification from 2022)

Removes a ticking time-bomb in the constitution which could have led to accidentally No-Awarding less popular categories in a year where there are one or two very high-profile nominees.

E.2 Best Game or Interactive Work (referred for ratification from 2022)

plus some other consequential changes, ending with

There are already too many Hugo categories, but this is an extensively researched and well thought out proposal which will align the awards more closely with what fans are actually doing.

F.1 Convention Time Bracket

🤷 Invokes incapacity of a convention committee where the date slips past December of the year of the convention. Not sure that this is needed, or that it is needed in this form.

F.2 Bid Committee Contactability

🤷 Not clear to me that this needs to be encoded into the constitution, or, if it does, that this is the right information to require.

F.3 Site Selection Ballot Provisions

Two provisions which both tighten up the information that is required to validly fill in a site selection ballot. I think both proposals go in the wrong direction – we should be making it easier to participate, not tougher – and I suspect that either would risk violating EU data protection legislation, as indeed does the current (admittedly unclear) wording. I will vote against both.

F.4 Hugo Awards Criteria for Non-English Works Eligibility

A helpful clarification of the rules, formally adopting a decision already taken by this year’s Hugo administrators. But I will vote against any attempt to further formally quantify the conversion ratios.

F.5 Best Fancast Not Paying Compensation

Seems to me sensible that the Fancast ballot should not include professional productions.

edited to add: I am changing my vote here to an . Subsequent discussion on File 770 made it clear to me that there are nuances here that need to be taken into account, and that it is a bad idea to try and hardwire a general over-arching definition of fan vs pro activity into the Constitution, as was advocated by some last year. The fan/pro line falls rather differently between zines, ’casts and art, and the definition of each category should clarify the boundaries for that category only; there is no need to make a general rule.

F.6 Best Young Writer

 There are already too many Hugo categories. Creates a new award for a writer under 24 who has got published in the last year. From what I’ve seen of some previous nominees in that age bracket, this is going to be about boosterism rather than quality.

F.7 Clarifying Language Requirements

Goes without saying, but sometimes these things need to be said. This and the next proposal are discussed in this File 770 thread.

F.8 Remove Regional Limitation

 The proposal seems to be based on a misunderstanding – the current system actually benefits non-US works over US works by giving them a second chance to get on the ballot. If we ever have a situation where North American voters are not consistently the largest bloc among the Hugo electorate, we can look at whether this is still needed, but for now it’s a protection against US dominance, and should not be changed.

F.9 Establishment of ASFiC

and several more paragraphs

 Having an ASFiC is a great idea, but WSFS should not be in charge of it. Likewise, WSFS should not be in charge of NASFiC, which should instead be abolished in its present form. See this File 770 discussion thread.

F.10 Best Game Category

🤷 Hopefully E2, which is better worded, will pass and this won’t need to be considered.

F.11 Independent Films

 There are already too many Hugo categories. Not everything needs to get a Hugo. Having not one but two awards for independent films is definitely excessive, and the definition of what is and isn’t an independent film will be a major headache for administrators.

No doubt the Business Meeting will take a different approach. (It usually does.) But the above is how I think I will be voting.

Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars, by Catherine Clinton

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Accustomed to depending on the largesse of his family, Pierce [Butler, Fanny’s husband] lacked independent wealth, vocation, or even direction for his life. His brother, John, was also “a mere idler … totally without education or intellect,” but he had married an heiress, Gabriella Morris, and was comfortably fixed “in dress, house & equipment.”

As my regular reader knows, I am fascinated by the nineteenth century actress and writer Fanny Kemble. I first encountered her witnessing the first ever fatal train accident, and then read her controversial memoir of living as the wife of a Georgian plantation owner in the 1830s. She seems a really attractive character, and my problem has been that none of the books I had previously read about her grasps the whole of her personality and career; Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, by Deirdre David, concentrates on her theatrical activity and aspirations; Fanny Kemble and the lovely land, by Constance Wright, emphasises the American part of her life; and Fanny Kemble: The Reluctant Celebrity, by Rebecca Jenkins, is just poorly written.

To refresh your memory, when Fanny Kemble was born in 1809, her father’s family completely dominated the British theatre world; her aunt was the famous actress Sarah Siddons, the oldest of a dozen Kemble siblings who all went into show business. The family fell on hard times in the 1820s and ruthlessly marketed her as Juliet, both in London and in North America. She married a charming American in 1834, but discovered that the foundation of his wealth was slavery; they separated and eventually divorced. Her ex-husband also fell on hard times and auctioned off 436 slaves, the largest slave auction in American history, in 1859. Her book about life on the plantation, based on letters written in 1838-39, was published in 1862 and effectively deterred British sympathy for the Confederacy. She returned to London in 1877 and lived there for the rest of her life, performing on stage occasionally, but usually doing solo readings (she was clearly very good at it). She died in 1893.

I’m glad to say that I’ve finally found a book about her that I can recommend to the curious. Like Constance Wright, Catherine Clinton in Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars concentrates on her American experience, but gives a lot more context and depth, and gives due regard to the English parts of her life. (We think of her as English, but her mother was born in Vienna to a Swiss mother and French father.) She does not shy away from the political side of Kemble’s life, and it’s made clear that a large part of what drove her was determination to improve the situation of women (though she rejects “organised feminism” on page 235). As I mentioned in one of my previous reviews, while audiences (and her husband) loved to see her as Juliet, her favourite Shakespeare character was Portia. (Merchant of Venice Portia, not Brutus’ wife in Julius Caesar.)

Clinton also adds much more about Kemble’s family than I think I had seen before. The fact that her favourite aunt died as the result of a coach accident soon after they had arrived together in America must have resonated profoundly for her. Clinton also traces her and her siblings’ descendants in America – her two daughters were estranged to different degrees by their parents’ bitter separation, and ended up basically on opposite sides in the Civil War; in 1874, her English nephew married the daughter of the President of the United States in a ceremony at the White House.

Due to my interest in Doctor Who, I’ve read a fair number of showbiz memoirs, and I have come to the conclusion that most actors are interested in themselves and in acting, usually in that order, and in not much else. I think it’s appropriate that Clinton treats Kemble’s theatrical career as of secondary importance to her writing and her activism. Although Kemble is always remembered as an actress, in fact she spent only five years out of her eighty-four as a regular performer in plays; but she leveraged the reputation that she had earned for the rest of her career. (And the revenue from her later solo readings cannot have done her any harm.) She enlivened a rich life experience by writing well, and I should start reading some more of her original work. Meanwhile, you can get Clinton’s biography here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Politics: Between the Extremes, by Nick Clegg.

Sunday reading

About Time 9, by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
Fate, by Zhao Haohui
2024, by Robert Durward

Last books finished
Nine Black Doves – Volume 5: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny
Facing Fate: Breakfast at Tyranny’s, by Nick Abadzis et al
Locklands, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Living with the Gods, by Neil MacGregor
A Life of My Own, by Claire Tomalin

Next books
Doctor Who: Earthshock, by Ian Marter
No, But I Saw the Movie, ed. David Wheeler
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford

Growing a beard

On 20 July, the day before our public holiday for Belgium’s National Day, I shaved my entire lower face and neck for the last time. The last time forever? I don’t know. The last time to date, anyway.

Photo taken in London by my colleague Andrei Goldis

I had tried this a couple of times before. In 1985, aged 18 and fresh out of school, I grew a moustache, which I kept until 1994; it defaces our wedding photographs, unfortunately.

Indeed, living in Germany in 1986, at the point I turned 19, I even grew a beard; not terribly successfully.

I had thought of giving the beard another try over last Christmas, and stopped shaving on 15 December; but then a crucial work meeting came up on the 20th, and I decided that I couldn’t really do it with five-day stubble.

I don’t really like the way my mouth looks in these pictures, and that was one more reason to try and grow a beard, to conceal the tight grimace I sometime unconsciously slip into.

Why? Well, I am 56 and can’t really carry off the “smart young man” look any more. My once fine head of hair has been thin on top for many years. I was interested to see whether, almost four decades on from my last attempt, the results might be different. I was also somewhat inspired by a former colleague who is about the same age as me, and pulled off the transition to distinguished beard a few years back.

Part of it also came from my genealogical researches. My father grew a beard one summer when he was 52, a bit younger than I am now, but was unsatisfied with the outcome and shaved it off again at the end of the holiday. My mother’s father was clean-shaven, and so were both of her grandfathers, at least in all surviving photographs and memories. My father’s father had a neat military moustache for most of his life. But both my father’s grandfathers sported splendid whiskers. (They never met each other; John Joseph Whyte had been dead for over a decade by the time his son met Henry Deming Hibbard’s daughter in 1927.)

My great-grandfather John Joseph Whyte (1826-1916)
My great-grandfather, Henry Deming Hibbard (1856-1942)

So there is some cause for hope from my genetic heritage. (Both salt rather than salt-and-pepper, at least in the evidence we have.)

For completeness, here are my beardless forefathers of the last three generations.

Left: my father, John Henry Whyte (1928-1990); top centre, my paternal grandfather, William Henry Whyte (1880-1949); bottom centre, my maternal grandfather Sean Francis Murray (1909-1976, bottom); right, my maternal great-grandfathers, William Murray (1876-1956, top) and James Stewart (1885-1954, bottom)

A majority of my male work colleagues have beards of varying degrees of success – here is a photo from an office outing to the pub last week, and as you can see beards outnumber the cleanshaven by eight to five among the adult men. (The smallest male in the picture is too young to shave. Another very young chap was also present, but didn’t catch the photographer’s eye.)

I feel right now that I’ll probably keep the beard for a bit. I was perhaps hoping for a salt-and-pepper effect, but in the end I got only salt. It’s been a little weird to adjust to the fact that the edge of your body is no longer quite where it used to be. But I can adapt to that; people adapt to much worse, after all. I also just like stroking it – it’s a completely natural gesture. It does occasionally itch; but everything occasionally itches.

And the key stakeholder approves, so that’s a decisive factor.