The Wheels of Chance, by H.G. Wells

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It is undeniable that it became convulsed with the most violent emotions directly the Young Lady in Grey appeared. It began an absolutely unprecedented Wabble—unprecedented so far as Hoopdriver’s experience went. It “showed off”—the most decadent sinuosity. It left a track like one of Beardsley’s feathers. He suddenly realised, too, that his cap was loose on his head and his breath a mere remnant.

This is one of H.G. Wells’ earliest novels, published in 1896 between The Island of Dr Moreau and The War of the Worlds, and I think his first non-genre novel. I thought it was a little gem. The protagonist, Mr Hoopdriver, working unhappily in a draper’s shop, goes on a cycling holiday across southern England, and finds himself acting as saviour to a teenage girl who has run away from home with a much older man. Often I find Wells’ portrayal of the lower middles classes annoying and patronising, but here I felt there was enough characterisation in the portrayal of Hoopdriver and self-deprecation in Wells’ own tone that the brief story hung together perfectly well. It’s not quite up to the level of Love and Mr Lewisham, the next non-genre novel that Wells wrote, but I enjoyed it all the same. You can get it here.

It would make a lovely short film or teleplay, and I’m surprised to find that it has been adapted for the screen only once, a silent film made in 1922.

Bechdel fail. It’s told from the point of view of Mr Hoopdriver, and when the girl finally is reconciled with her stepmother, there are always men present or being talked about.

Next on my Wells list is another early one, The Wonderful Visit.

The Sun Makers, by Lewis Baston (and Robert Holmes, and Terrance Dicks); and Angela from Bristol, the mystery extra

I remember watching The Sun Makers aged ten when it was first shown in late 1977. It’s not the high point of Season 15 (that would be Horror of Fang Rock) but it’s not the low point either (that would be Underworld). Even at ten, however, I could feel that the show was trying not to lose its way; I did not know of course that new producer Graham Williams was fumbling to set his mark on the show, or that Robert Holmes stepped down as script editor halfway through the story.

When I rewatched it in 2008, I wrote:

I remembered The Sunmakers from its first broadcast in 1977, but had forgotten quite how good it is. In total contrast to The Seeds of Doom, here we have the Doctor fomenting a popular uprising against an oppressive regime. There are numerous classic sf tropes – the rag-tag rebels living in the bowels of the city, the drugs in the air supply – but also a couple of Robert Holmes touches, such as the repeated digs at the British tax system. The bad guys – Gatherer Hade and the Collector – are gratifyingly over the top, but at the same time the implied violence is pretty alarming – the Doctor almost gets his brains burnt out, Leela is almost executed by public steaming, both are threatened with ugly death by the suspicious rebels, and these seem like serious threats. Indeed I seem to remember reading somewhere that at one point there was a plan for Leela to be killed off in this story, which would certainly have been a more in-character departure than what actually happened (but would have deprived us of her in the much later Gallifrey audios). It is also, and this I think is very unusual, a good story for K9: he starts and ends by beating the Doctor at chess, and takes the initiative at several crucial points during proceedings. It seems almost churlish after all that to point out that the actual setting – humanity has been forcibly displaced to Pluto as a result of fiendish capitalist exploitation – is pretty implausible even for Who, and does great violence to any attempts to construct a future history of the Whoniverse.

When I came back to it for my Great Rewatch in 2011, I wrote:

I have a feeling that last time I watched The Sun Makers, for some reason it was immediately after watching Underworld so it looked rather good in comparison. However, in sequence after the brilliance of Season 14 and the more modest successes of Horror of Fang Rock and Image of the Fendahl, it is pretty awful. I think I can establish several specific reasons for the awfulness, one of which was not really anyone’s fault, but the remainder of which could have been corrected.

The unchangeable factor is that the weather for the location filming was dull, so the story gets off to a tremendously dull start; it’s difficult to make the roof of a cigarette factory in Bristol look much like the top of a kilometer-high apartment block on Pluto, but it helps if the weather cooperates. I wonder if there’s also a bit of an unconscious assumption on my part that cuddly blurry film should represent contemporary Earth settings, and sharp-edged videotape the future; so the setting looks even more like Bristol than Pluto.

But the other factors were simply mistakes made by Holmes in the script and not sufficiently rounded off in the editing process. The story is simply very nasty. The rebels are really very unpleasant people, threatening to kill him and Leela; we don’t really see why the Doctor should choose to help such unlikeable (and otherwise unmemorable) individuals. The Company of course are even worse, which is OK since they are the baddies, but the attempted steaming of Leela is a really horrific prospect, much worse actually than any of the supposedly extreme violence of the previous season.

It does have its good points. The interplay between Gatherer Hade and the Collector is great fun (though again Holmes is usually smarter than to give all the good dialogue to the villains) and K9 gets to be very useful in his first proper story after joining the Tardis. Though even then, the framing narrative of the chess match in the console room doesn’t quite gel. I don’t think I’ll watch this one again, unless the DVD commentary is particularly good.

This time around, I felt myself falling between the two poles: yes, cracking satire by Holmes and good performances from the bad guys; but the rebels are really unpleasant and the violence very squicky.

It also struck me that the future of humanity on Pluto is rather white. There is one exception, an uncredited Work Unit who appears on the roof in episode 4:

Who was she? The surviving paperwork, supplied to me by Paul Scoones, has four extras with women’s names booked for the filming in Bristol on 19 June 1977, six months before the episode was shown.

The four names are Jennie Weston, Elizabeth Havelock, Angela Towner and Marion Venn. Surprisingly, I think I have tracked down three of them.

  • I find a Jennie Weston who in 2010 was reported to be a Drama and English teacher, who had worked for Radio Bristol in educational broadcasting; the picture supplied doesn’t look like the person I am interested in.
  • An Elizabeth Havelock does have a credited page on IMDB, including four speaking TV roles from 1977-79, but was born in 1926 so clearly too old (if it’s the same Elizabeth Havelock); and again there’s a photo which is clearly a different person.
  • A Marion Venn was swimming coach at Dean Close School in Cheltenham from 1977 (the year of filming) to 2000; I’ve found recent photos of her and she’s definitely not the person I am looking for.

So I think my mystery actor, possibly the only actor of colour in the whole of Season 15 of Doctor Who, is Angela Towner (The Complete History thinks it’s “Angela Tower”, but Paul Scoones was able to find legible paperwork in which the name is clear). This could well have been her only professional acting role, asked to stand around with a crowd on top of a factory in Bristol on an overcast and not very warm Thursday, before going on to a life doing something completely different. It’s entirely possible that her surname subsequently changed, which would make it much more difficult to track down her later performances if any.

Oh yeah, I reread the novelisation by Terrance Dicks as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

However, K9’s brand of logic, based on his recollection of past events, and an extrapolation of future probabilities, told him that the Doctor would land in trouble within a very short time of leaving the TARDIS. He would need K9’s remarkable powers to rescue him from the dangers into which his rashness had led him. It was therefore logical that K9 should exercise these powers as soon as possible.

In 2008 I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Sunmakers is probably the best of these nine books [the Leela novelisations]; Dicks clearly appreciated Robert Holmes’ script and seems to have really got into the spirit of it. There is an interesting scene in the book but not in the TV series where Leela encounters some elderly workers waiting for euthanasia. Various other minor details are tweaked and basically improved in Dicks’ telling of the story.

Watching the series with the production subtitles switched on, I could see that Dicks was working from Holmes’ script as originally envisaged, and making the most of it.

Anyway. After my very grumpy post about the Black Archive on Kill the Moon, I’m very glad to say that Lewis Baston’s monograph on The Sun Makers was much more to my liking.

The first chapter, “‘An Unprofitable Operation, Hade’: The Sun Makers in context”, looks at the social and economic difficulties of the UK in general and of Robert Holmes in particular at the time the story was made.

The second chapter, “‘The Grandest Society of Merchants in the Universe'”, convincingly analyses the extent to which The Sun Makers draws not from contemporary Britain but from the history of the East India Company.

The third chapter, “‘Sacrifices to Tribal Gods'”, announces up front that it examines Doctor Who’s treatment of economics in general, but it also veers into the steaming subplot and death as entertainment, re-done (not as well) in Vengeance on Varos a few years later, and the influence of the Aztecs (much less in the finished programme than was planned by Holmes). Its second paragraph is:

The Sun Makers came relatively early in Doctor Who’s late 1970s engagement with economics. Before then, the principal economic concern was energy, hence baleful consequences in Fury from the Deep (1968), Inferno (1970) and The Claws of Axos (1971) and the background to Terror of the Zygons (1975). The Doctor consistently takes a dim view of humanity’s fossil fuel dependence.

The fourth chapter, “Empire of the Iron Sun”, looks at imperialism as protrayed in science fiction, especially Doctor Who, and also considers the influence of The Iron Sun by Adrian Berry (later Lord Camrose), and the anti-Semitism in the portrayal of the Collector.

The fifth chapter, “‘The People Should Rise Up and Slaughter Their Oppressors'”, looks at the frankly revolutionary and Marxist agenda of the story. It doesn’t reflect, as I did, on how remarkable it is that this story should be written by a former policeman who fought in Burma in the second world war and whose other work is usually entertaining but not nearly as subversive.

The sixth chapter, “‘Praise the Company'”, moves on from 1977, reviews what has happened to us politically and economically since then, and comes to the gloomy conclusion that to an extent we all live in the Collector’s world now.

A brief conclusion ends with a pithy summing-up:

The Sun Makers, therefore, is a revolutionary, experimental tract that shows the signs of its origins as a piece of writing by Robert Holmes which was turned into television by the BBC in the late 1970s. It deals with big ideas, and it is full of allusions and tangents. It also fulfilled its role as entertaining Saturday evening television for a family audience as the nights drew in before Christmas 1977. And, perhaps above all, it is very funny.

I’d have liked a bit more on the parts of the story I didn’t like as much – the gratuitous violence and the poor production values – but this is a case where the Black Archive has achieved redemption for me: I think I like The Sun Makers a bit more, now that I have read this analysis of it. You can get it here.

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

Tuesday reading

Hugo vote counting time rather cuts into one’s reading…

De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhout
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller, edited by Nina Allan
Those Pricey Thakur Girls, by Anuja Chauhan

Last books finished
Airside, by Christopher Priest
Doctor Who: The Evil of the Daleks, by Frazer Hines

Next books
Doctor Who: Paradise Towers, by Stephen Wyatt
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The Smile on the Face of the Tiger, by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Pershing picked a blood-fattened leech from the back of his hand. His sleeve had torn and thorns had pulled across his forearm until it looked as if it had been whipped; his legs ached from the effort not to loose his footing and all the water in his body was gushing from his open pores. The motion of his shirt had burst a boil between his shoulder blades.

This is the second of a near-future trilogy co-written by a future Foreign Secretary and one of the founders of Private Eye in the late 1960s, of which the third is Scotch on the Rocks. The scenario is simple: in the mid-1970s, China demands the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control twenty years early, and activates agents deep within the British establishment in order to stay on top of the UK’s nuclear bluff. There is a tremendously tense chase through the corridors of power and less salubrious parts of England, as vital communications in the days before mobile phones require in-person meetings. It’s not all that plausible but it’s well drawn.

I first read it in the 1990s, when Douglas Hurd was still in government and Hong Kong still under British rule, and was struck then by the hopelessness with which the British position is portrayed: the Hong Kong garrison might hold out for 48 hours against a Chinese attack if very lucky; popular sentiment in Hong Kong would certainly shift against the British immediately if withdrawal seemed a serious prospect; the nuclear submarine commander in the Pacific knows that he and his vessel will be destroyed in retaliation if they fire on China. The British establishment is generally weak and in disarray.

This time round, having been in China myself only five months ago, I was struck by the stereotyping of the Chinese leadership. Hurd (who turned 94 on 4 March) was posted to China early in his diplomatic career, soon after the Communist take-over at a time when the foreign ministry (as my friend Peter Martin has written) was probably at its least efficient. In real life, China was consumed with the Cultural Revolution in the period between this book being written and the time it is set. I would add though that the portrayal of Hong Kong is warm and surely based on personal knowledge.

An interesting speculation on a historical might-have-been. You can get it here.

Scrapes a Bechdel pass on page 90 when two (named) Chinese women discuss ways of getting into Hong Kong.

This was the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Doom 94, by Janis Jonevs.

St Patrick’s Day: celebrating in Leuven

The cult of St Patrick goes back to the fifth century, when he returned to Ireland (having spent time there as a child slave) as a missionary bringing Christianity to the island. The details are very obscure – we have a couple of documents actually written by him which however are frustratingly vague in places. However, his brand proved powerful, and by the seventh century he was accepted as the patron saint of Ireland.

Leaping forward a thousand years, after the disintegration of the old Gaelic political leadership in Ireland – culminating with the voluntary but permanent exile of two crucial noblemen in 1607 – the Irish College in Leuven became one of the centres of Irish culture and external political activity. Indeed, during the whole seventeenth century, the land we now call Belgium was the only country where books were published in the Irish language – it was illegal in Ireland.

From 1612 there are records of the Irish exiles in Leuven celebrating St Patrick’s Day, so the history of March 17 as a diaspora festival really starts here; when you are in the auditorium of the college, formerly the chapel, you really are in the room where it happened. And a couple of days ago (St Patrick’s Day being a Sunday this year), the Celticanto trio of singers performed this electrifying rendition of Danny Boy to a spellbound audience. It was pretty amazing.

As a footnote, Leuven did not in fact witness the first recorded overseas celebration of St Patrick’s Day. St Augustine, in Florida, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the contiguous USA founded by Europeans, in 1565. It was a Spanish settlement, but in 1600 the parish priest was an Irishman, Richard Arthur, known as Ricardo Artur locally; and he invoked the protection of St Patrick (rather than St Augustine, after whom the town was named) for the settlers. Local historian Michael Francis has found records that Artur organised public celebrations of St Patrick on 17 March 1600 and 1601, including a public procession in 1601. It’s not quite St Patrick’s Day as we know it; there was not much of a diaspora in Florida, and the tradition ended when Artur left the town.

But no need to quibble; today is a day for celebration. Lá Fhéile Pádraig sona daoibh!

Male strippers, and the boundaries between South and West Belfast

I got an interesting call from the Belfast Telegraph a couple of weeks ago. Northern Ireland’s major news last month was that a male stripper group had entertained customers at a Belfast pub by, you’ll never guess this, taking all their clothes off. Many people who felt that their opinions needed to be known took to the airwaves and the newspaper columns to express their views.

Personally I don’t have a problem with sex work, provided that basic lines of consent are protected for both providers and potential customers; it was completely decriminalised here in Belgium during the pandemic, and the country has failed to collapse into moral turpitude. (Or at least, I haven’t noticed if it did.) But the Belfast Telegraph did not seek my advice on that point.

Instead the question was about the location of the incident, the Devenish pub on Finaghy Road North: is it in West Belfast or South Belfast? Denizens of both South and West respectively insisted that the scenes of such depravity were not happening in their part of the city but on the other side of an invisible boundary. As I said to the reporter, “I can see how both South and West Belfast have rather different branding, and also the incident at the Devenish may not fit either branding particularly well.”

To go into the history of it. I grew up around the corner from the Devenish, but I don’t remember it being there when I was a child, and the Ordnance Survey map from around the time I was born marks the site as a “Nursery” – probably for trees rather than children. On the PRONI site you can track the history of the area back before the M1 motorway and even before the raileay.

Today’s Ordnance Survey map of the area north of Finaghy crossroads
Probably from the 1970s, before the Devenish was built; the site is marked as a nursery
Before the motorway was built, and before most of the development north of the railway – the Ardmore estate was built in 1947
Before the railway was built; though the line of today’s Ardmore Avenue is already visible as the lane around Finaghy Cottage

Finaghy Cottage, the house to which the future Ardmore Avenue led, belonged for many years to the confused poet Herbert George Pim, whose bizarre career I cannot possibly do justice to in the space I have here; let’s just say that it’s strangely appropriate that a scandal involving male strippers should break out less than five minutes’ walk from his former home. Edited to add: Disappointingly it seems that Pim’s “Finaghy Cottage” was on the Drumbeg Road near Dunmurry, not all that close to Finaghy in fact.

Anyway, the question is, what part of Belfast was the future site of the Devenish located in? The first part of the answer is that it wasn’t in Belfast at all until quite late in the day.

Map from Belfast: Approach to Crisis: A Study of Belfast Politics 1613–1970, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary (1973)

In this map from a history of Belfast civic politics, published in 1973, the future site of the Devenish is under the G in “Great Northern [Railway]” on the left, within the shaded area that Belfast Corporation were trying to annex from County Antrim after the second world war. But the city boundary actually ended farther east, at the King’s Hall to be precise; the showgrounds were just inside the city limits, and Finaghy outside. This was the boundary between the Ballyfinaghy and Malone Upper townlands.

Map from the 1917 Boundary Commission for Ireland’s report.

In parliamentary terms, the nine Belfast constituencies of the 1919 election were drawn by a Boundary Commission for Ireland in 1917. In 1920, using those same boundaries, they were merged to make four new parliamentary seats, returning to the old compass model, North, South, East and West. These were also the seats used for the first two elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons. The boundary between South and West Belfast was the same as the boundary between the St Anne’s and Cromac seats of 1919, and the western half of the boundary was the railway line. And you can see that Finaghy, at the bottom left corner, is outside the city for parliamentary purposes.

The Belfast South and Belfast West constituencies remained unchanged until the early 1970s, when they were expanded outwards, Belfast South taking in the Rural District of Lisburn electoral divisions of Ardmore, Dunmurry, Finaghy, and Upper Malone, and Belfast West taking in the Rural District of Lisburn electoral divisions of Andersonstown, Ballygammon, and Ladybrook. (These Lisburn areas collectively had formed the short-lived Stormont seat of Larkfield.) We are interested in the Ardmore elecrtoral division, which was defined in 1963 as “That portion of the Townland of ‘Ballyfinaghy lying north of the centre line of the main Belfast/Lisburn Road”.

This map from the townlands database shows the townland boundaries of Ballyfinaghy, and the part north of the Upper Lisburn Road is the Ardmore electoral divison of the late 1960s. Immediately to the north again are the townland end electoral division of Ballygammon, in West Belfast from the early 1970s; but Ardmore (and indeed the whole of the Ballyfinaghy townland) is in South Belfast. So I was wrong when I told the Belfast Telegraph that the railway line had once been the boundary at Finaghy; the site of the Devenish has been in South Belfast since the early 1970s, and before that it was not in Belfast at all. It has never been in West Belfast, contra what I told the Belfast Telegraph. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Since 1983, the constituency boundaries have been based on the reformed local government wards, which defined the motorway as the boundary between Finaghy Ward and Ladybrook Ward in 1972 and since. I was correct on that at least, and it has survived several rounds of revision.

But basically, the disgruntled citizens of South Belfast will have to accept that the Devenish is part of the diversity of their quarter of the city, which is anyway the most multicultural area of Northern Ireland. For what that’s worth.

For previous cartographic nostalgia, see my posts on Moreland’s Meadow and the oldest shop at Finaghy Crossroads.

The Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien

Second paragraph of third story (“Eachta an Fhir Ólta: CEOL!,” translated by Jack Fennell as “The Tale of the Drunkard: MUSIC!”; sadly the original Irish-language text is not available):

“What is the meaning of this? What’s wrong with you!” I said. “It’d be more in your line to be in bed, instead of staggering around drunk all over the city like this. You’d be better off if you turned your back on the drink, and your face to the fireplace—an intelligent, mild-mannered man such as yourself—and took up another hobby, like fretwork, or listening to the gramophone. . . .”

I got this in preparation for the Flann O’Brien panel at the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, but I confess that I only skimmed it then. It’s a short collection of short pieces by the great man. The most interesting stuff is at the beginning, where he pokes fun at Irish language enthusiasts in a couple of pieces originally written in Irish (and heavily footnoted to explain the humour). Most of the middle section is material being tried out for deployment elsewhere (the story about the young man who was born for Ireland gets used twice).

At the end, Jack Fennell presents a story which he is certain is by a 21-year-old Flann O’Brien, and published in 1932 in, of all places, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories – “Naval Control”, as by “John Shamus O’Donnell”. He has argued the case further in a recent Journey Planet, and I for one am convinced. How glorious, that Gernsback may have published the future author of The Third Policeman!

To be honest, I think this is really a book for Flann O’Brien completists, but there are a lot of us about, and it comes with a good foreword and scholarly apparatus. I don’t think any of the stories even clears the first step of the Bechdel test. But you can get it here.

This was my top book acquired in 2019 which is not by H.G. Wells. Next on that pile is The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless.

Kill the Moon, by Darren Mooney

I’m going to be blunt: Kill the Moon is not just my least favourite Peter Capaldi episode, it’s my least favourite episode of New Who since 2004. In case you have forgotten, the central plot point is that the Moon is not actually a ball of rock but a gigantic dragon’s egg, which hatches, and then the dragon flies off, first laying a new egg that has exactly the same size and appearance as the former Moon. This utter violation of basic astronomy threw me out of the story when I first watched it and threw me out again when I rewatched it for this post.

On top of that, the Doctor abandons Clara on the surface of the Moon to decide whether or not to blow it all up with nukes, in a move that is frankly both cruel and cowardly, and therefore goes against the fundamentals of the character. There are people out there who love this episode, but I find it an embarrassment close to Timelash levels. (Not quite Twin Dilemma levels, though, nothing can ever be that bad again.)

Darren Mooney has a different view, and in his Black Archive earnestly looks for the virtues of the story and claims to find them.

The first chapter, “‘Now We Can Do Something Interesting’: Kill the Moon as Self-Aware Television” argues that the story’s initial reception was very positive from critics (well, it wasn’t from me!) and that it is consciously re-shaping the show’s narrative as part of a master plan for the whole eighth series.

The second chapter, “The Moon’s an Egg’: Kill the Moon and the Tension between Science Fiction and Fantasy in Doctor Who”, argues that expectations of scientific rigour are misplaced as Doctor Who has never been a hard sf show, and references the Sad Puppies who emerged the following year as champions of hard sf. I think my record on the Puppies is reasonably clear, and I don’t think you have to be a raving traditionalist to find Kill the Moon‘s treatment of science offensively stupid..

The third chapter, “‘Second-hand Space Shuttle, Third-hand Astronauts’: The Curdling and Reignition of 60s Utopianism” looks at the cultural significance and interpretation of the historical Moon landings, especially in the Troughton era. Its second paragraph is:

Implicit in this observation is the idea that any expansion of humanity beyond the surface of the Earth will most likely treat the Moon as a stepping-stone. For much of its history, humanity was fascinated by the prospect of visiting the Moon. Stories about imagined lunar expeditions became tremendously popular during the 17th century, prompted by the research and theories of Galileo Galilei1. This fantasy of Moon exploration is inexorably tied into the history of SF as a genre. Released in 1902, Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is frequently identified as the first SF film2.
1 Seed, David, ‘Moon on the Mind: Two Millennia of Lunar Literature’, Nature, 9 July 2019.
2 See, for example, Luokkala, Barry B, Exploring Science Through Science Fiction, p2.

The fourth chapter, “‘We Have to Decide Together’: Scepticism of Simple Majoritarianism in the Work of Peter Harness”, points out that all three of Harness’s Who stories undermine the concept of a democratic vote, and links this to other New Who themes.

The fifth chapter, “‘…First Woman on the Moon’: Gender in Kill the Moon“, briefly looks at the story’s reference to abortion (in my view a clumsily handled and poorly executed minor theme) and then at the way in which the story subverts the gender roles of Doctor and Clara (which I don’t think it really does).

The sixth and final chapter, “‘That’s What We Call a New Moon’: Kill the Moon as an Argument for Optimism”, cheers the themes of death and rebirth in the story, which as noted above I find crass and unconvincing.

I am sure that Darren Mooney is a perfectly reasonable person, and reading the book it’s clear that we are coming from similar directions in a lot of ways. I opened his book wondering if he could persuade me out of my view that this is the worst Doctor Who story of the last forty years; and he did not. But you can get it here.

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

Sferics 2017, ed. Roz Clarke

Second paragraph of third story (“Ivory Tower” by Amanda Kear):

He was idly watching the drones – several in the colours of local TV channels – gathering pictures of the traffic, when his phone morphed to the colour and ring-tone which indicated an urgent work-related call.

I got this because one of the six short stories in it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2018, and back in those blessed days one could reasonably hope to read all of the BSFA nominees before voting. It didn’t win, but the anthology has been sitting on my electronic bookshelf for the last six years and I have finally read it.

It turns out that these are outputs from a writing workshop held at a small UK convention in 2015, so they’re a little raw. The best is not the BSFA-nominated “Angular Size”, by Geoff Nelder (though it is the only one that passes the Bechdel test), but “Ivory Tower” by Amanda Kear, telling a story of future ivory smuggling in Kenya. None of them is actively bad, though, and it didn’t cost me much. You can get it here.

This was both the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2018, and the sf book that had lasted longest unread on my shelves. Next on those lists respectively are Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu, and De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhaut.

David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, by Simon Guerrier

Second paragraph of third chapter:

That same year, Helen and Richard [David Whitaker’s parents] moved into a flat in Tulse Hill, south London, on a much more modest scale than they’d been living in Knebworth. Robert [David Whitaker’s brother] said that shortly after this, still in 1930, ‘Richard’s leg caused a great deal of trouble and he went back to Roehampton where the limb was amputated/’ That use of ‘back’ suggests an ongoing problem with repeated visits to Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton, south-west London. Established in 1915, this ‘quickly became known as one of the world’s leading limb-fitting and amputee rehabilitation centres’. Richard was likely in serious pain and unable to walk let alone work. Physical symptoms may also have been accompanied by mental distress, still barely understood by doctors – let alone wider society. Perhaps this was the cause of Richard and Helen’s earlier separation.

We got a lot fewer books last year to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Doctor Who than we did for the fiftieth in 2013. But this really makes up for it. David Whitaker was one of the crucial figures in early Doctor Who – script editor at the very beginning of the show, author of the first Doctor Who books, writer of eight Old Who stories; but dead at 51 in 1980, and so missing the extra lease of life given to many former Who creators by the explosion in fan activity later that decade.

Simon Guerrier has done a great job of telling the story of those 51 years in 413 pages. He complains near the beginning that most previous published accounts supposedly (and even actually) by Whitaker about his own life have turned out on investigation to be substantially untrue; details are wrong, achievements exaggerated, essentially the fiction-writer’s skill deployed to his own autobiography.

But Guerrier has mined the archives, talked to relatives (though again, a lot of them died young too), and dug through the assembled Who lore of the past six decades to paint a sober and intriguing picture of a man who knew he wanted to write but didn’t quite know how to do that for a living. He also brings in some vivid social research about Whitaker’s family background and his first marriage, and looks at how the BBC in the 1960s struggled to set up a career structure that adequately rewarded creativity. (I suspect it hasn’t quite got there even today.)

The documentary and memory trail goes a bit thin at the moment when Whitaker and his first wife went to Australia, and he came back a couple of years later with his second wife. It’s also a bit scanty at the very end, when his health broke down (probably from too much smoking) and he was unable to get work. But this is understandable, and doesn’t detract from the attractiveness of the book.

Myself, I was struck on reading it by how little people actually recall about Whitaker. Accounts of meetings and conversations where we know he must have been present just don’t mention him, and the drama doc An Adventure in Space and Time wrote him out of history completely. It reminded me of the protagonist of Bob Shaw’s A Wreath of Stars, who considered himself the human equivalent of a neutrino, a particle able to travel through the Earth without disturbing any other particle. When he went fully freelance at what turned out to be the end of his life, I got the sense that he couldn’t get work because very few people remembered who he was. Awfully sad.

Anyway, this is strongly recommended just as a good read about a creator who had a big success in his mid-thirties and was never quite able to find the magic ingredients again. You can get it here if you are lucky – the first two print runs appear to have sold out.

Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Water evaporates, the heat pushing it higher and higher until suddenly it is too high, condensing around particles of soot and ash billowed into the heavens by the blaze.

Occasionally I hit a book by a favourite author that doesn’t quite work for me, and I’m afraid this is one of those times. I’m generally a big fan of North’s writing, and I’m also a big fan of A Canticle for Leibowitz, to which this is in part a response. It’s the story of a future scholar dedicated to retrieving past knowledge in a post-apocalypse society, where rival power structures have mutually entangled espionage networks and cosmic principles are embodied.

I didn’t especially like any of the characters, but what put me off more was that although the story is mainly set in the cities and countryside of a devastated Central Europe, there is very little sense of place; the cities are interchangeable and everyone seems to speak the same language. This detachment from geography threw me right out of the narrative. Most people seem to like it much more than me. You can get it here.

A Bechdel fail, I think; mostly first-person narrative and a male protagonist. But I may have missed an exception.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2021. Next on that pile is When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant, which I picked up at Novacon (where I also acquired COVID).

Three Girls in a Flat, by Enid Yandell and Laura Hayes

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Marjorie rose with a most winning smile to greet—Mrs. Brown!

I dug this 1892 book out of the internets after getting the impression from Simon Guerrier’s biography of David Whitaker that it was the inspiration for the 1969-1971 BBC series Take Three Girls. In fact I was completely wrong, the book that I am writing up here is set in Chicago, while the TV show, set in London, was really inspired by another book of the same title by Ethel F. Heddle, also set in London and published three years after the Chicago one, in 1896. But I have my own interests in fin-de-siecle America and in modern sculpture, so I don’t regret reading this one.

It’s the story of three young women architects involved with preparing the World’s Columbian Exposition, aka the Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893 – and specifically with preparing the Woman’s Building, a really interesting project designed, managed and implemented entirely by women, showcasing women’s achievements in the arts in a way that seems strangely twenty-first century, at a time when only two states in the USA allowed women to vote. (New Zealand and Colorado both extended the vote to women in 1893.)

The book is probably mostly by Laura Hayes, who as well as being a trainee architect was the secretary of Bertha Palmer, the Chicago socialite who was the prime mover behind the initiative to have a Woman’s Building in the first place (at least her name is given as the copyright holder). Enid Yandell, who gets top billing on the title page, became a very well-known sculptor whose career started with the Chicago Exposition. The third credited author, Jean Loughborough, was another architect who designed the Arkansas building for the Fair.

The book is a brief and warm account of apartment life for young professional women in a city which was just getting used to that concept. It is beautifully illustrated – eight illustrators are credited and I suspect that the authors contributed some pictures as well; there’s something to look at on every page. What got me was the tremendous sense of optimism; America and the world as a whole were opening up, and the three young women are convinced that the future will be better than the past. You can get it for free off the internet here and here.

(And I think every one of the short chapters passes the Bechdel test.)

The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman

Second paragraph of third story (“No Stronger Than a Flower”):

Nesta had always been given to believe that, whatever they might say to one, it was a woman’s appearance that men really cared about; and indeed she thought that she well understood their point of view. So understanding had she been in fact, that she had long regarded herself as truly resigned to the wintry consequences in her own case. She would not, therefore, ever have accepted Curtis’s proposal of marriage, had she not greatly, though as yet briefly, loved him. She had a temperamental distaste for extreme measures.

This is a collection of eight spooky stories, with a foreword and afterword expanding on Aickman’s life and career. He has a particular gift for atmosphere, of making places that were slightly odd in the first place become more sinister and threatening. Two of the eight stories, to my surprise, are actually set in Belgium, one in the catehdral in Gent and the other in Brussels in the Wiertz Museum and surroundings (now the EU Quarter). I must go to the Wiertz Museum some time, it’s less than ten minutes’ walk from my office.

Peter McClean, to whom I am very grateful, sent me this book ages ago, with a strong recommendation which I can now endorse. I admit I had not heard of Aickman previously, but his modest output is clearly of very high quality. You can get this collection here.

I had to look quite thoroughly for a story that passes the Bechdel test, but Clarissa, the protagonist of “Bind Your Hair”, has a couple of conversations with the mysterious Mrs Pagani and also with a spooky little girl (who is however not named).

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is Why We Get the Wrong Poltiicians, by Isabel Hardman.

A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It takes a moment or two to appreciate how bad – and yet how good – British food used to be.

Autobiography of the UK journalist and quizmaster, with whom I had two close encounters in 1994 as captain of the unsuccessful Queen’s University of Belfast quiz team:

Yes, that is future Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng on the other team, and future minister and MP Stephen Farry on my team.

It’s an entertaining book, as you would expect from his public persona. Paxman was from gently decaying middle-class roots, but he got to Cambridge and, equipped with his M.A. Cantab, became the face of both Newsnight and University Challenge. He cut his journalistic teeth in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s, and paints a striking picture of the awfulness of official government policy, and the BBC’s difficulties in reporting on the situation properly – there were two striking incidents where he himself was centrally involved in clashes between the broadcaster and the government, but it doesn’t seem to have done his career much harm in the end.

Paxman doesn’t have a lot of self-doubt; this gives us an entertaining take on war reporting, writing books that nobody ever buys or reads, politicians in general and running a quiz show, but the deep reflection is more on the cogs and gears of politics, and why it is important to hold the ruling class to account, than on any deeper sense of society or indeed personal purpose. I enjoyed it a lot but slightly struggle to remember particular incidents, now that I’m writing it up a couple of weeks later. You can get it here.

It’s a man’s autobiography, so if the Bechdel Test were applicable to non-fiction it would not pass.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my pile. Next up there is Bletchley Park Brainteasers, by Sinclair McKay.

Tuesday reading

Doctor Who: The Evil of the Daleks, by Frazer Hines
De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhout
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

Last books finished
Moonraker’s Bride, by Madeleine Brent
Sunstone, vol. 1, by Stjepan Sejić
Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman 
Ex Marginalia: Essays from the Edges of Speculative Fiction, ed. Chinuo Onwualu
Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Serve You, by Al Ewing, Rob Williams et al 
Shigidi and the  Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi

Next books
Doctor Who: Paradise Towers, by Stephen Wyatt
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Commercial aeroplanes leaving and landing at the City Airport continue to pass overhead. They’re unaware of Sammy and the shape he’s spelling out as he walks. He’s too small to be seen from the sky. He’s a grain of sand, a dot, a pin, a misplaced punctuation mark. Even God would have to squint. However, if he could be seen from such a height, if, for example, you were peering through binoculars or some other magnifying lens, your eye would be drawn to him, dragging his heels from one street to the next, kicking an empty Coke bottle as he goes. You would know that Sammy did not belong on these streets, drifting.

East Belfast, marching season, the present day (2019); two fathers concerned about their children. Ex-Loyalist Sammy suspects that his son is the masked social media influencer behind a wave of arson attacks. Trouble GP Jonathan’s daughter was begotten of a Siren who came and stayed in his bath and then disappeared back into the waves.

Most of the novel is gritty reality, so that you can almost smell the tarmac bubbling in the summer sunlight; but the parts with Jonathan and his daughter edge into magical realism with a particular Belfast idiom, where parents of strangely gifted children navigate both intrusive supernatural forces and the banal bureaucracy of health care and social security.

Often this sort of trope can feel bolted onto a conventional narrative, but Carson makes you feel that Belfast (East Belfast, very specifically) is the sort of traumatised place where reality starts to erode at the edges. It’s well-balanced, in the sense that a cyclist going at top speed over uneven terrain remains well balanced. Anyone expecting a standard urban grim novel will be surprised. You can get it here.

Bechdel fail. The book is either first-person from Jonathans point of view, or tight-third from Sammy’s, and they talk to very few women who in turn don’t talk much to each other, and if they do it’s about Jonathan or Sammy.

Fernand Léger and my grandmother

Over the last couple of years I have been deepening my knowledge of a couple of the early twentieth century abstract artists, one of them being Fernand Léger (1881-1955). I was initially struck by his “Jeu de Cartes” at the Kröller-Müller Museum up north in the Netherlands, when we went there in July 2022.

I have since encountered him at the charming museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis and in Brussels, and most recently in Los Angeles where LACMA has his “The Disks”:

I really like the way he plays with shapes to make us look at things in a different way.

At the same time, I’m gradually going through my American grandmother’s memoirs of her life, and have reached her stay in Paris at the age of 20 in 1919. She has the following interesting notes:

One thing that was very nice for me was that Gascon and Mariette Mills heard that I was in Paris and got in touch with me; Gascon’s cousin Rosalie Hinkley had married a cousin of mine, so that though there was no relationship there was a connection. The Millses had no children of their own and were very good to me, often having me to stay at their place at Rambouillet – a delightful hunting-lodge of the time of Louis XIV – quite a large house, really, where they had lovely parties. Through them I met many interesting people, mostly artists, Oleg Tripet-Skrypitzine and Picabia and Fernand Léger and Guy Arnoux and lots of others. Mariette herself was a good sculptor and did some fine work; Gascon went in for carpentry and with little assistance built a chalet in the grounds of their house.

So my grandmother knew Fernand Léger! Rather a thrill. More on the people mentioned below, but I also found online a French translation of the English-language memoir Being Geniuses Together, 1920–1930, by Robert McAlmon (1895-1956) which includes the following snippet from 1921 (with my retranslation back into English, as I don’t have access to the original text):

Le lendemain, je partis pour la campagne, près de Rambouillet. Les Heyworth Mils avaient un château dans la petite commune où je m’installai, et dans un rayon de quinze kilomètres se trouvaient plusieurs charmants villages où l’on pouvait se promener, siroter un petit vin rafraîchissant, revenir pour le déjeuner et travailler l’après-midi. Le dimanche, mais souvent, aussi, les jours de semaine pour prendre le thé, Brancusi, Léger, Picabia et Blaise Cendrars venaient rendre visite aux Mills.

The next day I left for the countryside near Rambouillet. The Heyworth Mills had a château in that little town, where I settled in. Within fifteen kilometres there were several charming villages where you could go for a walk, sip a refreshing glass of wine, come back for lunch and work in the afternoon. Brancusi, Léger, Picabia and Blaise Cendrars would come to visit the Mills on Sundays and often on weekdays for tea.

It’s interesting that my grandmother and Robert McAlmon both namedrop both Fernand Léger and Francis Picabia as fellow guests of the Mills’. It is amusing to think of the two young Americans (McAlmon was 25) possibly at the same tea-party in Rambouillet, wowed by the French artists present and ignoring each other.

So, the people my grandmother mentions are:

“Gascon Mills” – Lawrence Heyworth Mills (1872-1943), born in Switzerland, an American citizen who lived most of his life abroad. He was the son of the Professor of Zend Philosophy at Oxford, also Lawrence Heyworth Mills (1837-1918). I don’t know the origin of my grandmother’s nickname for him of “Gascon” or “Gaston”, which she uses for him elsewhere. Robert McAlmon’s memoir also refers to him as “Le Gaston”.

Mariette Benedict Thompson (1876-1948), was Mills’ second wife (his first wife died in 1902). She was also an American expat, born in Paris, and was indeed a moderately well known sculptor. Unfortunately I haven’t found photographs of any of her work online, but there seem to be pieces in both the Musée d’Orsay and the Pompidou Centre. She is the only woman mentioned by either my grandmother or McAlmon.

Rosalie Hinckley (1887-1981) was Heyworth Mills’ first cousin once removed, the daughter of Rosalie Anne Neilson (1858-1939) and granddaughter of Caroline Kane Mills (1822-1891), whose younger brother was the Orientalist professor Lawrence Heyworth Mills; she was born and died in New York. Rosalie Hinckley’s husband Cornelius Wendell Wickersham (1885-1968) was my grandmother’s first cousin, the son of former Attorney-General George Woodward Wickersham (1858-1936).

Oleg Tripet-Skrypitzine must be Oleg-Eugène Tripet-Skrypitzine (1848-1935), who would have been 72 in 1920. He was the son of the French ambassador to St Petersburg and a Russian princess, and is particularly remembered for developing Cannes and the French Riviera, but some of his art survives as well. He had a son, François Oleg Tripet-Skrypitzine, but he emigrated to Canada in 1910 and does not seem to have been artistically inclined.

Francis Picabia (1879-1953) is a very well-known artist, one of the founders of Dadaism who then denouced it and switched to Surrealism in 1921 (the same year that he and my grandmother were entertained by the Millses). One of his notable works from 1921 is “Jumelle”.

Fernand Léger is probably the best-known of the artists named by my grandmother. He is usually bracketed with Bracque and Picasso as a pioneer of Cubism. Something about his art really grabs me and from surviving photos he looks like he was fun at parties, even tea-parties. This is his “The Breakfast”, also known as “Three Women”, from 1921.

Guy Arnoux (1886-1951) again had a very different style, much more of a cartoonist and illustrator – indeed he ended up making a nice career in illustrations for American newspapers and magazines, possibly helped by his connection with the Millses. Here’s his “La Robe de Chambre”, “The Dressing-Gown”, from 1921.

McAlmon also namechecks “Brancusi”, actually Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957) who is the best known of any of the artists here, though chiefly remembered as a sculptor rather than a painter. Mina Loy’s poem, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird“, was inspired by a sculpture that she probably saw at the Mills’ Paris house. His “Adam and Eve”, now in the Guggenheim, dates from 1921.

Finally, McAlmon also mentions Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), a writer and poet, rather than an artist, originally from Switzerland. He published a collection of African folk tales in 1921 (with unfortunately a racist title).

Those must have been great tea-parties.

BSFA Award short lists – Goodreads / LibraryThing stats

The BSFA Award short lists are out, and so my reading is set for the next month until voting finishes and the results are announced on (I guess) 30 March. Congrats to all who made the cut.

There are (almost) five categories out of ten where it’s possible to report on the presence of the shortlistees on the two main book-logging sites, Goodreads and LibraryThing, so below I am listing the number of people who have rated each book on Goodreads, the number who own each book on LibraryThing, and the average rating on both (as I did with the long lists). There are a few which have not yet been rated by anyone on LibraryThing. Within each category books are listed in descending order of the (geometric) average of raters/owners, and the categories themselves are listed similarly. Very high ratings sometimes reflect only that the book has so far been rated by just one or two enthusiasts!

Best NovelGoodreadsLibraryThing
Shigidi And The Brass
Head Of Obalufon
Wole Talabi4173.76613.36
Descendant MachineGareth L. Powell6444.13334.25
AirsideChristopher Priest1473.45264.00
HIMGeoff Ryman1493.83233.67
The Green Man’s QuarryJuliet McKenna1904.51143.25
1635 pages in total

Of the 65 books on the Best Novel long list, these were respectively 40th, 38th, 47th, 51st and 50th in my previous ranking – none of them was in the top half of the table (the top book on my long-list table was not actually sf). This demonstrates only that BSFA second round voters are not very aligned with Goodreads and LibraryThing users.

Best Shorter FictionGoodreadsLibraryThing
And Put Away Childish ThingsAdrian Tchakovsky12023.82493.90
I am AIAi Jiang1844.4745.00
The Book of GaherisKari Sperring104.50153.50
EuropaAllen Stroud473.773
Broken ParadiseEugen Bacon54.603
765 pages total

Best Shorter Fiction is the only category which has the same book top out of five on both GR and LT. These were 3rd, 9th, 12th, 14th and 17th out of the 24 long-listees that I was able to rank by GR/LT ownership.

Best Fiction for Younger ReadersGoodreadsLibraryThing
The Library of Broken WorldsAlaya Dawn Johnson1543.19664.13
A Song of SalvationAlechia Dow2323.96283.00
MindbreakerKate Dylan2164.20155.00
We Who Are Forged In FireKate Murray554.182
The Inn at the Amethyst LanternJ Dianne Dotson174.591
1786 pages total

The long list here for Best Fiction for Younger Readers was rather short, and these were 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th out of 8.

Best CollectionGoodreadsLibraryThing
No One Will Come Back For UsPremee Mohamed2974.06424.08
Best of World SF: Volume 3Lavie Tidhar94.33753.58
The Best of British Science
Fiction 2022
Donna Scott183.94194.25
Strange AttractorsJaine Fenn44.50103.83
Mothersound: The
Sauútiverse Anthology
Wole Talabi25.004
1922 pages total

These were 4th, 39th, 18th, 25th and 37th of the 51 Best Collection long listees. When I looked at the long lists five weeks ago, Best of World SF: Volume 3 had not yet been rated by anyone on Goodreads and had only nine owners on LibraryThing; it has picked up considerably in the meantime. I was concerned about the rather long tail of the long list, but it doesn’t seem to have transferred to the short list.

Best Non-Fiction (Long)GoodreadsLibraryThing
Spec Fic for NewbiesTiffani Angus and Val Nolan114.3685.00
A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid SpellerNina Allan, editor64.505
All These WorldsNiall Harrison44.005
Ex Marginalia: Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction by Persons of ColorChinelo Onwualu84.132
The Female Man: Eastercon talkFarah Mendlesohn(lecture on YouTube)
1417 pages total

The books here were 6th, 11th, 10th and 14th of the 23 long-listees for Best Non-Fiction (Long) on GR and LT. The same book tops both systems, but one of the nominees is a talk rather than a publication, and the numbers are anyway thin, so the comparison is incomplete.

That’s a total of 7,528 pages; and there are five other categories as well. You have four weeks!

The Odyssey, by Homer, tr Emily Wilson

The second section of Book 3 of The Odyssey, as generally agreed, has the goddess Athena addressing Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. Here it is in the original, in Emily Wilson’s new-ish translation, in the T.E. Lawrence prose which I read in 2009, and in the classic first English translation by George Chapman (he of Flann O’Brien’s “Keats and Chapman” stories).

“Τηλέμαχ᾿, οὐ μέν σε χρὴ ἔτ᾿ αἰδοῦς, οὐδ᾿ ἠβαιόν·
τοὔνεκα γὰρ καὶ πόντον ἐπέπλως, ὄφρα πύθηαι
πατρός, ὅπου κύθε γαῖα καὶ ὅν τινα πότμον ἐπέσπεν.
ἀλλ᾿ ἄγε νῦν ἰθὺς κίε Νέστορος ἱπποδάμοιο·
εἴδομεν ἥν τινα μῆτιν ἐνὶ στήθεσσι κέκευθε.
λίσσεσθαι δέ μιν αὐτός, ὅπως νημερτέα εἴπῃ·
ψεῦδος δ᾿ οὐκ ἐρέει· μάλα γὰρ πεπνυμένος ἐστί.”
(Emily Wilson, 2018)
“Do not be shy, Telemachus. You sailed 
over the sea to ask about your father,
where the earth hides him, what his fate might be.
So hurry now to Nestor, lord of horses.
Learn what advice he has in mind for you.
Supplicate him yourself, and he will tell you
the truth; he is not one to tell a lie.”
(T.E. Lawrence, 1932 – prose)
‘Telemachus, here is no room for
false modesty: no room at all.
Have you not come oversea in
quest of your father, expressly to
learn where the earth is hiding him
or what doom he has drawn upon
himself? So you must go up
straight, now, to this horse-proud
Nestor, and make him yield to you
the inmost secrets of his heart.
Implore him, yourself, to speak
perfect truth: and then he will not
deceive us: for his mind is
compact with wisdom.’
(George Chapman, 1616)
No more befits thee the least bashful brow;
T’ embolden which this act is put on thee,
To seek thy father both at shore and sea,
And learn in what clime he abides so close,
Or in the pow’r of what Fate doth repose.
Come then, go right to Nestor; let us see,
If in his bosom any counsel be,
That may inform us. Pray him not to trace
The common courtship, and to speak in grace
Of the demander, but to tell the truth;
Which will delight him, and commend thy youth
For such prevention; for he loves no lies,
Nor will report them, being truly wise.”

I got myself this as a late Christmas present, having read positive reviews and also having slogged through a couple of other translations. I was familiar with the high points of The Odyssey, which is fairly approachable, if oddly structured. But this is definitely worth getting. I really appreciated Wilson’s paring down of the language to take only as much space as the original words – most other English translators seem to have been rather verbose (cf Lawrence and Chapman above, three centuries apart).

As you would expect, given where Wilson is coming from, she boosts the voices of the women characters more than other translators do – and let’s bear in mind that Odysseus has love affairs with Calypso and Circe, and less explicitly with Nausicaa, while poor old Penelope has to stay faithful to him despite his years of absence. I also felt I got a much better sense of Telemachus here.

The book comes with an 80-page introduction and another 12 pages of preliminary notes, and it’s really worth it – a very good survey of both the society which the poem depicts, and the efforts that others have made to interpret the text for later times and places. And crucially the language is crystal clear. I have been told that this is now the standard translation used to teach The Odyssey, and I can see why. You can get it here.

Bechdel fail at the third step. There are plenty of named women, and they sometimes even talk to each other, but it’s always about a man (or men).

This was my top book acquired last year. Next on that pile is The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt.

February 2024 books

Non-fiction 4 (YTD 11)
A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman
David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, by Simon Guerrier
The Sunmakers, by Lewis Baston
Bletchley Park Brainteasers, by Sinclair McKay

Non-genre 5 (YTD 9)
Three Girls in a Flat, by Enid Yandell and Laura Hayes
Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien
The Smile on the Face of the Tiger, by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond
The Wheels of Chance, by H.G. Wells
Moonraker’s Bride, by Madeleine Brent

Poetry 1
The Odyssey, by Homer, tr Emily Wilson

SF 6 (YTD 11)
The Dawnhounds, by Sasha Stronach
The Fire Starters, by Jan Carson
Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz
The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman
Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North
Sferics 2017, ed. Roz Clarke

Doctor Who 1 (YTD 2)
Doctor Who and the Sunmakers, by Terrance Dicks

Comics 3 (YTD 5)
Tintin au Pays de l’Or Noir, by Hergé
After Life, by Al Ewing et al
Sunstone, vol. 1, by Stjepan Sejić

4,900 pages (YTD 10,500) 
7/20 (YTD 16/41) by non-male writers (Yandell/Hayes, Wilson, Stronach, Carson, Schmatz, North, Clarke; “Madeleine Brent” is a pseudonym for Peter O’Donnell)
0/20 (YTD 3/41) by a non-white writer (must do better)
3/20 rereads (The Smile on the Face of the Tiger, Doctor Who and the Sunmakers, Tintin au Pays de l’Or Noir)

309 books currently tagged unread, up 4 from last month, down 76 from 28 Feb 2023

Reading now
Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hartman

Coming soon (perhaps)
Serve You, by Al Ewing et al 
Doctor Who: The Evil of the Daleks, by Frazer Hines
Doctor Who: Paradise Towers, by Stephen Wyatt
Paradise Towers, by John Toon
Doctor Who: Kinda, by Terrance Dicks
Kinda, by Frank Collins
De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhaut
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu
DOOM 94, by Janis Jonevs
Ara Guler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, by Robert Kaplan
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray
“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge”, by Mike Resnick
The Sol Majestic, by Ferrett Steinmetz
L’Affaire Tournesol, by Hergé
The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
The Wonderful Visit, by H. G. Wells
Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

“The New Mother”, by Eugene Fischer and Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz

These were the joint winners of what was then the Tiptree Award in 2015, a novella and a YA novel.

Second paragraph of third section of “The New Mother”:

All of these names are attempts to capture precisely how it is that babies are being made now in a way they have never been made before. Recall the old, familiar recipe: two cells, a sperm from a man and an egg from a woman, fuse into a single cell which grows into a baby. The sperm and the egg can fuse this way because they are, at a genetic level, different from all the other cells in the body. Every cell contains our complete genetic code, split up into 23 chromosomes. Most cells have two copies of each chromosome (one from mom, the other from dad) for a total of 46. This property of having two copies of every chromosome is called “diploidy.” Almost every cell in the human body is diploid. The lone exception are the gametes, the sperm and the egg. Gametes are “haploid”–they only have one copy of each chromosome. Being haploid is what allows two gametes to fuse into a single diploid cell with a new mix of chromosomes that will develop into a genetically distinct person. This is sexual reproduction, the way human beings have made more human beings from the beginning of the species until sometime in the last six years.

A near-future story in which parthenogenesis becomes possible. I read it when preparing Hugo nominations in 2016 and really liked it, and nominated it. It made the long list in the Best Novella category that year, in 12th place, but would have needed almost three times as many votes as it actually got to qualify.

Rereading it again eight years later, it remains a classic for me – the clash between state-imposed ideological control of fertility, and the demands of humanity and of human nature, are well delineated without thumping the reader over the head with the point. The fact that the story is set in near-contemporary Texas, where some of the worst bits of this dynamic have been playing out in real time since 2016, makes it even more effective now. You can read it here.

Easy Bechdel pass: the protagonist is in a lesbian relationship and she and her partner talk about everything, sometimes but rarely including men.

Lizard Radio is a YA novel by Pat Schmatz, an author I was otherwise unfamiliar with, and jointly won the Tiptree Award with “The New Mother”. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

My fingertips hit the reassuring shape.

There are a lot of dystopian YA novels around, and frankly I’m beginning to find them a bit formulaic, but this is a different matter with a sparkling and nervous energy about it. Kivali, the genderqueer protagonist, is sent to a re-education camp in a dystopian near future, and must negotiate quasi-parental relationships, friends and potential lovers, and the ever-present threat of “vaping”, which in this case means physically spontaneously evaporating, rather than any recreational vapour consumption. The protagonist’s vocabulary is just abit off-kilter and that keeps you as a reader on your toes. I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of this before, and well done to the Tiptree / Otherwise judges for picking it out of the field. You can get it here.

As well as these too, the Tiptree Honor List included four novels, two comic books, a TV series and four short stories. The only one of these that I remember having watched / read is “The Shape of my Name” by Nino Cipri, which I also nominated for the Hugos, though it did not even make the long list.

the Clarke Award that year went to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikowsky, and the BSFA to The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard, with Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson on both lists and no crossover with the Tiptree long list. The Hugo went to The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin and the Nebula to Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I think Children of Time is still my favourite, but Lizard Radio gives it a good run.

Next in this sequence is When the Moon was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore.

Tuesday reading

Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Moonraker’s Bride, by Madeleine Brent
Why We Get the Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman 

Last books finished
The Sunmakers, by Lewis Baston
The Wheels of Chance, by H.G. Wells
Bletchley Park Brainteasers, by Sinclair McKay

Next books
Serve You, by Al Ewing et al 
De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhout
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Second paragraph of third chapter:

`Because the journey happens in stages,’ Professor Lovell explained when Robin gave up. ‘Horses don’t want to run all the way from London to Oxford, and usually neither do we. But I detest travellers’ inns, so we’re doing the single-day run; it’s about ten hours with no stops, so use that toilet before we go.’

This won the Locus and Nebula Awards for Best Novel last year, but infamously not the Hugo. It’s an alternative history story where Britannia rules the waves (and much of the land) through the magical use of linguistics and etymology, which has been developed in depth at an institute known as Babel in Oxford University. Our protagonist, Robin Swift, adopted from the streets of Canton (now Guangzhou) by the unpleasant Professor Lovell, is educated to become one of the instruments of British domination, alongside three close friends, a chap from India and two young women from England and Haiti.

After lengthy academic reflections on the nature of language, illuminated by footnotes (not endnotes, thank heavens, and mostly brief and succinct), it becomes apparent to Robin that violent resistance against the British Empire is the only available course of action. (This isn’t really a spoiler as it’s pretty clearly signalled in the novel’s subtitle.) His group of friends fractures and there is a grand tragic apocalyptic climax.

A couple of friends of mine told me (separately) that they really didn’t like the book. They found it too info-dumpy and thought the magical parts were ripped off from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I respectfully disagree. I’ve been fascinated by linguistics since before I was a teenager, and loved the info-dump bits. I’m a Cambridge graduate, so I really don’t mind Oxford being represented as the centre of all that is evil in the world. I found the dynamics between the protagonist, his friends and the rest of society fully convincing. And the idea that words carry power goes a lot further back than Susanna Clarke; only a month ago I was in Prague, where the legend of the Golem lurks around many of the corners. I really enjoyed it, and you can get it here.

Although there are several strong women characters, including two of the protagonist’s three close friends, I had to hunt a bit for a Bechdel pass because the story is largely told from Robin’s point of view. But I found one at least, in Chapter Six, where Letty (Robin’s fellow student from England) tries to discuss the situation of women at Babel with Professor Craft, and Professor Craft tries to deflect her.

As luck would have it, I finished reading Babel on the morning of 20 January, the day that the Chengdu Worldcon Hugo nominations statistics were released and it became clear that it had been disqualified in the Best Novel category. Despite my previous and subsequent involvement with Hugo Award administration, I have no more information than is in the public domain about why this happened. I think it’s a shame. Babel is selling very well in China (translated by Chen Yang). I would have voted for it if it had been on the Hugo ballot, and I suspect that I am not alone.

This was my top unread book by a writer of colour, my top unread book by a woman, and my top unread sf book. Next on all three piles is Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

On my last day in LA last week, after Gallifrey One, I visited LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with my old friend A. It was a rainy day and I had only an hour and a half between meeting A and needing to run to the airport. I slightly blenched at the $25 admission charge for non-Angelenos (A, as a native and recent returnee, would normally get in for a generous $5 discount). But the museum gods were smiling on us and the ticket machine was broken, so we got in for free.

A, rejoicing in our escape from the admission charges

I’m sorry to say that my initial impression was not hugely positive. The Resnick Pavilion, one of the two main buildings, is full of post-colonial this and that, deliberately de-centering the perspective of the original collectors (which for me is one of the interesting bits). I did like Todd Gray’s “Atlantic (Tiepolo)“, a three-dimensional collage reflecting on the slave trade.

Across the rainy way, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum building has three floors but the middle one was closed. Again, we were a bit underwhelmed by the ground floor, which has some interesting enough LA-inspired stuff but also some large empty spaces. What caught my eye was “El Chavez Ravine“, an ice cream truck covered with a painting by Vincent Valdez in collaboration with musician Ry Cooder, a companion piece for Cooder’s 2005 concepot album “Chávez Ravine” commemorating a Mexican-American community in Los Angeles whose homes were destroyed in the 1950s for a development that was never actually built.

We went upstairs in the BCAM building, slightly wondering why LACMA has been hyped up as much as it has; OK, we’d got in for free, but so far it wasn’t worth the $25 that I would have paid.

But on the third floor everything changed. Here there is a fantastic collection of modern art which is better than many European museums. Picasso, Bracque, Matisse, Barbara Hepworth, Fernand Leger (who I’ve come to appreciate) represented by “The Disks“:

I was grabbed also by Magnus Zeller’s “The Orator“:

Bust most of all, as a patriotic Belgian, I was delighted to find the original of Magritte’s “La trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]“. (I went to the Brussels Magritte Museum with U in 2022.)

That alone would practically have been worth the admission price. (If I’d had to pay it.) After that, A kindly dropped me off at the airport and I came home to mountains of unread emails and hours of jetlag, which I am just about over now.

It was actually a lucky break because A and I had originally planned to visit the Getty Museum, which however is closed on Mondays. Very glad to have seen it. (It’s actually on the same block as the La Brea Tar Pits, which I visited two years ago.)

The Hugos and me

I have now been appointed Hugo Administrator for Glasgow 2024: A Worldcon for our Futures, double-hatted with the role of Division Head for WSFS. (If the website hasn’t already been updated, it will be soon.) This is my comment on recent events, and my own commitment to future action.

I was not involved with organising the Chengdu Worldcon in any way, though it was a close call. Shortly before the Chengdu bid won the Site Selection vote in 2021, I was invited to become one of the Co-chairs of the convention if the bid won. (I have no idea if Ben Yalow was already on board at that stage.) I declined on the grounds that I really did not have time, but agreed to become a senior adviser, and was listed as such on their org chart presented in DC.

However, I was dismayed by Chengdu Worldcon’s choice of fascist writer Sergei Lukanyenko as a guest of honour, and by a general lack of communication. By summer 2022 I had heard very little from Chengdu Worldcon and it had become clear that they were not very interested in my advice, so I resigned as an advisor and heard no more from them for several months. 

In March 2023, rather to my surprise, I was invited to come to Chengdu as a guest of the convention, with no strings attached. I attended Chengdu Worldcon in October and generally enjoyed myself a lot. I was however aware of the undercurrents of dissatisfaction within Chinese fandom about the way that the convention was being run and with how some Chinese fans were being treated by the organisers. 

I left Chengdu grateful for the hospitality that had been shown me, inspired by the conversations I had had and by the energy of Chinese fans, but also conscious of the gaps between cultures and political systems. I had had a very good time, but a number of Chinese attendees did not. I am conscious of my privilege.

Then came the publication of the Hugo nomination statistics on 20 January. Every year since at least 2013, before EPH was introduced, I have published an analysis of the votes in each category. It took me very little time on this occasion to conclude that – quite apart from the unexplained disqualifications – the published 2023 numbers cannot possibly be an accurate reflection of the nominating votes cast. I concluded that there was nothing that I could usefully say (and said so). 

Others (notably Camestros Felapton and Heather Rose Jones) have put more effort into trying to work out what happened than I have been able to do; but fundamentally the numbers are simply not credible. And no justification has been given for many of the disqualifications. I felt, and feel, sickened and betrayed. I know nothing more about what happened than is in the public domain, and that is bad enough. My cheerful memories of an international celebration of science fiction are now irretrievably tarnished. I feel particularly sorry for all of the finalists and nominees for the 2023 Hugos, and for those Chinese fans who sincerely put their energy into the Chengdu Worldcon.

I am also a member of the WSFS Mark Protection Committee and the Worldcon Intellectual Property board, to which I was elected by the 2022 WSFS Business Meeting. I participated in the January 2024 meeting at which Dave McCarty, Ben Yalow and others were censured for events at and subsequent to the Chengdu Worldcon. I make, and will make, no further comment on those discussions.

I was the Hugo administrator in 2017 and 2019, and part of the teams for 2020, 2021 (for a while) and 2022. My record is clear. We were criticised for allowing contested nominees to appear on the final ballot, including Hidden Figures in 2017, Archive of Our Own in 2019, Jeannette Ng’s speech in 2020, the “George R.R. Martin…” blog post in 2021 and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki in 2022. I stand by those decisions. (Two of those contested nominees went on to win.)

Some nominees are ineligible under the rules. I do not like to unilaterally disqualify anyone. Sometimes a nominee will themselves flag up uncertainty about their eligibility to administrators. If preliminary research indicates that there is a problem with eligibility in a particular case, I prefer to engage in dialogue with the relevant creator to get the full picture. This is not always possible, but it is my ideal.

Sometimes a book has been published in the wrong year (in my experience, one each in 2019 and 2022). Sometimes we have to juggle between entire TV series and individual episodes which were nominated in different categories (twice in 2020, also in 2021 and 2022); and only two episodes of any one TV series are allowed on the ballot, so if more than two have the numbers, they need to be trimmed down (2017). The same goes for authors (2019).

Sometimes artists do not have an appropriate body of work for the years and categories they had been nominated in (four in 2017, one each in 2021 and 2022). Editors turned out to be ineligible in 2020 (one) and 2022 (four). A Semiprozine nominee in 2017 was not eligible. An Astounding nominee in 2020 had been published too early to qualify. Again, I stand by all of those decisions. I helped administer the Retro Hugos in 2019 (for 1944) and less enthusiastically in 2020 (for 1945), and they bring a whole extra dimension of hassle.

The Glasgow 2024 team and I have committed to publishing, along with the final Hugo ballot, the potential nominees who were ineligible or who declined nomination, and the grounds for any ineligibility decision; and along with the final results of voting, the full statistics as mandated by the constitution and in addition a detailed log of our decisions interpreting the rules. My then team did this in 2017, and we can and will do it again in 2024. Kathryn Duval, who was my deputy in 2017, is my deputy again this year (in a slightly different role) and the entire team is committed to transparency. We are considering some additional steps as well.

There are a lot of discussions going on right now about the future governance of the Hugo Awards, of WSFS and of Worldcon. I am personally concentrating my energy on running a better process in 2024, and won’t have time to engage much in those debates. I do however think that the Hugos are fundamentally Worldcon’s award, and removing them from Worldcon will mean that they are no longer the Hugos. But that is enough for now.

Three Plays, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

I got this collection of 1930s plays five years ago, in the early stages of my Oscar-watching project, because the middle one of the three was the basis of a very successful film starring Lionel Barrymore. In fact all three of these plays were successfully adapted for the screen.

The scripts are prefaced by a short piece from each of the two authors, gently poking fun at each other and giving a sense of the relationship between two Broadway creators. They certainly seem to have got on with each other better than Gilbert and Sullivan.

The first play, Once in a Lifetime, is about a vaudeville trio, down on their luck because of the invention of talking movies which sucks the audience out of theatre, who go to Hollywood and try to make it big there. The dumb guy of the three ascends to huge cinematic power, and the punchline of the play is that the bad decisions he makes turn out to be very successful.

I thought it was really funny. I don’t always find it easy to read scripts, but here I had no difficulty differentiating the characters with their different voices. I noted that George Kaufman, one of the authors, also played the frustrated playwright Laurence Vail in the first Broadway cast.

The key character is Mary Daniels, the woman in the vaudeville trio, who gets the best lines and serves as the audience viewpoint character on what is happening in Hollywood. In the original Broadway production she was played by Jean Dixon.

The opening directions for the third scene are:

(The gold room of the Hotel Stilton, in Los Angeles. Early de Mille. Gold-encrusted walls, heavy diamond-cut chandelier, gold brocade hangings and simply impossible settees and chairs. There is an air of such complete phoneyness about the room that an innocent observer, unused to the ways of Hollywood, rather expects a director suddenly to appear from behind a door and yell: “All right, boys! Take it away!”
This particular room, for all its gaudiness, is little more than a passage to the room where Hollywood really congregates—so you can imagine what THAT is like. The evening’s function is approaching its height, and through the room, as the curtain rises, there pass various gorgeous couples—one woman more magnificently dressed than another, all swathed in ermine and so hung with orchids that it’s sometimes a little difficult to see the girl. The women, of course, are all stunningly beautiful. They are babbling of this and that phase of Hollywood life as they cross the room—”This new thing, dialogue”—”Why didn’t you introduce me to him—I just stood there like a fool”—”It wasn’t the right time—I’ll take you to him when they’re ready to cast the picture.” Through it all an unseen orchestra is grinding out “Sonny Boy,” and it keeps right on playing “Sonny Boy” all evening. Because it seems there was a man named Jolson.
Weaving through the guests is a CIGARETTE GIRL but not just an ordinary cigarette girl. Like every other girl in Hollywood, she is beautiful enough to take your breath away. Moreover, she looks like Greta Garbo, and knows it. Hers is not a mere invitation to buy her wares: on the contrary, her “Cigars! Cigarettes!” is charged with emotion. You never can tell, of course, when a director is going to conic along.
The COAT CHECK GIRL, certainly the most beautiful girl in the world, buttonholes the CIGARETTE GIRL as the crowd thins out)

This scene got cut from the movie.

The 1933 film of the play is available on Youtube at time of writing:

The two major stars here are the dumb-as-rocks George, played by Jack Oakie, and his love interest Susan Walker, played by Sidney Fox. The script clearly intends Aline MacMahon to be the main character as May (renamed from Mary) and the editing and direction of the movie end up a bit unbalanced. It’s hilariious though.

I wrote up the middle play, You Can’t Take it With You, at length in 2018 so you can read that here:

The stage version, even more than the film, concentrates on Grandpa Vanderhof as the central character. In the film he is portrayed electrifyingly by Lionel Barrymore; in the first stage production, he was played by Henry Travers, most famous as Clarence the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life; he also got an Oscar nomination for the station-master in Mrs Miniver. I think he would have been a bit less vicious.

The third play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, is even more overtly a character study than the other two. A famous New York theatre critic slips on an icy patch while visiting Ohio and is immobilised in the home of his reluctant hosts for several weeks. There’s a bit of a comedy of middle-class manners here, but mainly it’s about the monstrous protagonist who is unaware of his own monstrosity.

The opening of the third scene (Act Two) is:

A week later, late afternoon.
The room is now dominated by a large Christmas tree, set in the curve of the staircase, and hung with the customary Christmas ornaments.
SARAH and JOHN are passing in and out of the library, bringing forth huge packages which they are placing under the tree. MAGGIE sits at a little table at one side, going through a pile of correspondence.

JOHN. Well, I guess that’s all there are, Miss Cutler. They’re all under the tree.
MAGGIE. Thank you, John.

I Imagine that this is simple to stage, in that the entire play takes place in the Ohio front room. It’s more of a one-joke story than the other two. The play was written for actor and critic Alexander Woolcott, who had behaved with abominable rudeness while visiting Hart’s family home; for some strange reason he bowed out of actually performing as the character based on himself, and it fell to Monty Woolley to do it on both stage and screen, giving his career an immense boost. The film stars him and Bette Davis. Here’s a trailer:

These are all funny and light enough. You can get the collection here.

Once in a Lifetime gets a Bechdel pass. There is plenty of banter between the named woman characters. The opening lines of Act 1 Scene 3 are a conversation between the Cigarette Girl and the Coat Check Girl, who I admit are not named characters, but it’s funny enough to put here (and was censored from the film with the rest of the scene):

COAT CHECK GIRL. Say, I got a tip for you, Kate.
COAT CHECK GIRL. I was out to Universal today—I heard they was going to do a shipwreck picture.
CIGARETTE GIRL. Not enough sound. They’re making it a college picture—glee clubs.
COAT CHECK GIRL. That was this morning. It’s French Revolution now.
CIGARETTE GIRL. Yah? There ought to be something in that for me.
COAT CHECK GIRL. Sure! There’s a call out for prostitutes for Wednesday.
CIGARETTE GIRL. Say, I’m going out there! Remember that prostitute I did for Paramount?
COAT CHECK GIRL. Yah, but that was silent. This is for talking prostitutes.

You Can’t Take It With You also passes easily, with the opening lines featuring two women characters talking.

ESSIE. (fanning herself). My, that kitchen’s hot.
PENNY. (finishing a bit of typing). What, Essie?
ESSIE. I say the kitchen’s awful hot. That new candy I’m making—it just won’t ever get cool.
PENNY. Do you have to make candy today, Essie? It’s such a hot day.
ESSIE. Well, I got all those new orders. Ed went out and got a bunch of new orders.
PENNY. My, if it keeps on I suppose you’ll be opening up a store.
ESSIE. That’s what Ed was saying last night, but I said no, I want to be a dancer. (Bracing herself against the table, she manipulates her legs, ballet fashion)
PENNY. The only trouble with dancing is, it takes so long. You’ve been studying such a long time.
ESSIE (slowly drawing a leg up behind her as she talks). Only—eight—years. After all, Mother, you’ve been writing plays for eight years. We started about the same time, didn’t we?
PENNY. Yes, but you shouldn’t count my first two years, because I was learning to type.

The Man Who Came to Dinner was a bit more of a challenge, given that it is about a monstrous male egotist who dominates all around him. But just over half way through I found an exchange that definitely passes.

MAGGIE. That’s quite a gown, Lorraine. Going anywhere?
LORRAINE. This? Oh, I just threw on anything at all. Aren’t you dressing for dinner?
MAGGIE. No, just what meets the eye.
(She has occasion to carry a few papers across room at this point. LORRAINE‘s eye watches her narrowly)
LORRAINE. Who does your hair, Maggie?
MAGGIE. A little Frenchwoman named Maggie Cutler comes in every morning.
LORRAINE. You know, every time I see you I keep thinking your hair could be so lovely. I always wanted to get my hands on it.
MAGGIE. (quietly.) I’ve always wanted to get mine on yours, Lorraine.
LORRAINE. (absently.) What, dear?

The other two Bechdel-passing scenes were cut or trimmed for the screen, but I’m glad to give you this one in full with Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan.

This was the non-genre fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves (there is fantasy here, but not of the genre kind). Next in that sequence is The Smile on the Face of the Tiger, by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond.

Tintin au Pays de l’Or Noir [Land of Black Gold], by Hergé

Second and third frames of third page, in original and English:

At the turn of the year F and I went to a Tintin interactive exhibition in Brussels, where we sat and watched montages from the comics set to various trippy music tracks.

I picked up a couple of the albums that I had not read for a long time, to practice my French.

Tintin au Pays de l’Or Noir, known in English as Land of Black Gold, has an extraordinary publication history. The first half of it came out in 1939-40, but since the villain of the story is a sinister German, the story abruptly stopped when the Nazis invaded Belgium, leaving Tintin stranded in a sandstorm in the Palestinian desert.

Eight years later with the war safely over, Hergé started publishing it again from the beginning in Tintin magazine. He then took three months off in the middle of the process, without telling anyone in advance; he found the forced pace of creativity stressful, but his unplanned absences infuriated colleagues. The full 62-page album was published in 1949.

But it doesn’t end there. More than two decades later, in 1971, the English-language rights had been acquired by Methuen, who gently suggested to Hergé that it might be a good idea to change the setting from British-mandate Palestine and maybe take out the bit where Irgun mistake Tintin for one of their own agents and kidnap him (and also perhaps remove the British army officers). So Hergé shifted the Arabian settings to the fictional county of Khemed, working in some Belgian humour (more on that below), and the Khemed version rather than the Palestine version is now the standard text in all languages.

Despite its pervasive very dubious Orientalism, the story has some great parts. The opening pages in Belgium see an epidemic of explosions in cars and cigarette lighters due to contaminated petrol. But war clouds are gathering and Captain Haddock gets mobilised into the navy. Tintin learns that the problem with the petrol is happening at its source in Khemed, and undertakes a perilous journey to investigate. Having arrived, he gets entangled in a power struggle between the emir and a rebel leader, with the evil Dr Müller behind the sabotage. Despite the antics of detectives Thomson and Thompson, and with the aid of Captain Haddock, Tintin defeats Müller, rescues the emir’s obnoxious son Abdallah, and returns in triumph.

There’s some very good visual stuff here, especially the scenes on the boat across the Mediterranean, in the desert, and in the underground dungeon where Abdallah is imprisoned. Thomson and Thompson mistakenly consume Dr Müller’s chemicals and start sprouting blue hair and frothing at the mouth. The obnoxious Abdallah is well depicted with few words. But the end is a bit rushed and infodumpy, with text occupying almost 50% of the final page. And the plot does not cohere as well as in some of the other albums, no doubt due to the peculiar process of composition. This is oddly reflected in a recurrent Captain Haddock gag – several times he starts to explain how he has happened to arrive on the scene in the nick of time, but keeps getting interrupted and we never find out.

It is well worth reading in French, if you are so inclined. There’s an amusing and untranslatable riff on Charles Trenet’s classic song “Boum!” on the first page. Some of the Khemed names are taken from the Brussels dialect of Flemish – most obviously the capital Wadesdah is a riff on “wat is dat”, “what’s that”, and the oil wells are located in Bir El Ambik, referring to the Brussels lambiek beer. In a nod to French, the emir’s military adviser is Moulfrid, ie “moules-frites”, “mussels with chips”. And you can’t beat the original version of Captain Haddock swearing. “Anacoluthe! Ectoplasme! Oryctérope!” (That last is the standard French word for “aardvark”.)

Total Bechdel fail. Apart from Bianca Castafiore singing on the radio, the only women who we see are the Simoun switchboard operators and a nurse; they are not named, they talk only about men, and they do not talk to each other. The population of Khemed appears to be entirely male.

It is what it is. You can get it here in English and here in the original French (1971 text).

The Dawnhounds, by Sascha Stronach

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Here’s an old joke: fisherman sits in his boat, hooks a fish. As he reels it up and up, his friends sit in the boat with him and laugh. “Water’s fine today,” he says.

An urban fantasy with a difference; the fantasy city is a port threatened by pirates from without and religious fanatics from within. Our protagonist is a gay policewoman who survives murder and gets caught up in a plot to destroy the city. I seem to have read a lot of books like this lately, but this held my attention for the duration. You can get it here.

Bechdel pass: the protagonist is rescued by two women smugglers. (Not counting her earlier flirtation with a singer, because the singer is not named.)

This won the Sir Julius Vogel Prize presented at the fateful plague-struck New Zealand WorldCon in 2020. It was my top unread book acquired in that year (as part of the Julius Vogel packet, I think). Next on that pile is The Sol Majestic, by Ferrett Steinmetz.

Tuesday reading

Usually in leap years I change the day of my weekly book roundups at the very end of February. But I was on a transatlantic flight last night, so missed my Monday write-up yesterday, and I think I will just switch to Tuesdays two weeks earlier than I had planned. (Two transatlantic flights in a week are good for the booklog…)

The Sunmakers, by Lewis Baston

Last books finished
The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman
Three Girls in a Flat, by Enid Yandell and Laura Hayes
Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North
David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, by Simon Guerrier
Sferics 2017, ed. Roz Clarke
Kill the Moon, by Darren Mooney
Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien
Doctor Who and the Sunmakers, by Terrance Dicks
The Smile on the Face of the Tiger, by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond

Next books
Bletchley Park Brainteasers, by Sinclair McKay
The Wheels of Chance, by H.G. Wells
Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Gallifrey One, 2024

My plan was to blog an intense account of everything I did at Gallifrey One this year. But you know what? I ran out of time. So here’s a gallery of the best moments.

Matthew “Adric” Waterhouse. “Now I’ll never know if I was right!”
Matthew Waterhouse script reading. He is playing the Doctor, and the cosplayer is playing Adric.
Billie Piper explains that she wanted to move on to more edgy and less well-behaved roles after Doctor Who
“Hello, sweetie!”
Derek Jacobi mortified with embarrassment as they play an old recording of him singing “Home on the Range”
Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν·
Nobody can serve two Masters.
Annette Badland, Shaun Dingwall, Jacqueline King, Camille Coduri, Fraser Hines and Matthew Waterhouse
Jenna: Where are you going?
Cally: I’m going to clear the neutron blasters for firing.
Jenna: Well, what are you going to fire at?
Cally: Anything that moves.

(plus the second Travis)


Hannah, my partner in crime, as the 8th Doctor
Nine and Ten.
The definite article, you might say.
Leela cosplay
The Meeping Angel.
Cally. (Previously Leela.)
Annoyed that this ended up out of focus but maybe it’s more atmospheric that way.
Robot Santas. Or something.
Meep: “Will you be my friend?”
Me: “No.”
The littlest cosplayer.


Our contribution to the cult of ribbons.
My ribbon collection.


Writers panel
Lots of writers
Simon’s book (review coming soon)
Sunday dinner with Simon, John and España

A fantastic weekend while other things were on fire. No actual Doctor, but maybe that made it more relaxed. Hope to come back again next year.