Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean

Second frame of third part:

Next in the sequence of Tenth Doctor comics, this one published in 2015 but set immediately after the departure of Donna. The Doctor visits Brooklyn, and ends up with a new companion, Gabby Gonzalez, fresh from working at her father’s laundromat – where it is the washing machines that provide the terror of the title. I must say I’ve always thought of them as potentially a gateway to another dimension; there’s something primordial and strange about the rotational sloshing of the water. The opening three-part story is very good, the other two parts are a new story, “The Arts in Space” which is a bit sillier but still gives Gabby some more characterisation as well as just being fun. This series clearly had a lot of vim. You can get this here.

Next up is The Weeping Angels of Mons, by Robbie Morrison with art by Daniel Indro and Eleonora Carlini.

This was actually the first non-Clarke book that I finished reading in March, so my blogging here is almost exactly a month behind my real-life reading.

March Books

Non-fiction 9 (YTD 22)
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
Management Lessons from Game of Thrones: Organization Theory and Strategy in Westeros, by Fiona Moore
Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, by Rob Wilkins
Wordsworth’s French Daughter, by George McLean Harper
Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
William Wordsworth and Annette Vallon, by Émile Legouis
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, by James Mortimer
The Kosova Liberation Army, by James Pettifer
The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama

Non-genre 1 (YTD 4)
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

SF 23 (YTD 64)
θ3 (did not finish)
ι3 (did not finish)
κ3 (did not finish)
ξ3 (did not finish)
Luca, by Or Luca
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, by Aliette de Bodard
Ogres, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Best of Ian McDonald
Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, eds. Sheree Renée Thomas, Pan Morigan and Troy L. Wiggins
χ3 (did not finish)
ψ3 (did not finish)

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 10)
Warring States, by Mags Halliday
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed ???

Comics 2 (YTD 7)
Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel

10,100 pages (YTD 26,200)

17/37 (YTD 46/110) by non-male writers (Albright, Moore, Jacobs, θ3, λ3, μ3, ξ3, Luca, de Bodard, ο3, Thomas/Morigan, σ3, τ3, α4, Halliday, Casagrande/Florean, Bechdel)

7/37 (YTD 21/110) by a non-white writer (θ3, ξ3, Luca, de Bodard, ο3, Thomas/Wiggins, ψ3)

395 books currently tagged “unread”, 10 more than last month with the final Clarke submissions in.

Reading now
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston
The Weeping Angels of Mons, by Robbie Morrison, Daniel Indro and Eleonora Carlini
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond

Coming soon (perhaps)
Erasing Sherlock, by Kelly Hale
Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters, by Malcolm Hulke
Doctor Who and the Silurians, by Robert Smith?
Doctor Who: The Underwater Menace, by Nigel Robinson
The Underwater Menace, by James Cooray Smith
The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
The Race, by Nina Allan
The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard
Winter, by Ali Smith
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
The Memory Librarian, by Janelle Monáe
“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
Doctor Who Magazine Presents: Daleks
Living with the Gods
, by Neil MacGregor
Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam

Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke

Second paragraph of intro to third story (“Publicity Campaign”):

Although the references in the story are somewhat dated, the questions it raises are certainly not. And by a curious coincidence, I’ve re-read it the very week the media are ruefully celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds broadcast. (CBS’s Mercury Theatre of the Air, 31 October, 1938.)

Second paragraph of text of “Publicity Campiagn”:

R.B. heaved himself out of his seat while his acolytes waited to see which way the cat would jump. It was then that they noticed that R.B.’s cigar had gone out. Why, that hadn’t happened even at the preview of ‘G.W.T.W.’!

Of the three great mid-century sf writers, Clarke has aged much better for me than Asimov or Heinlein. This collection, originally published in 1989, brings together some familiar friends (“‘If I Forget Thee. O Earth…'”) and some unexpected discoveries (“Wall of Darkness”) in the Clarkeian œuvre. (I checked, and they are all in the Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke which I read in 2016, but not all of them had lingered with me.) What’s also nice is to read his introductions to each story, written in 1988 when he had just turned 70. It’s old-fashioned stuff but I found it really refreshing, reading it in the middle of my Clarke Award duties for this year. You can get it here.

I also want to shout out to Michael Whelan’s art. The cover is also rather glorious – though he notes on his website that the spaceship to the top right of the primitive human’s head was added at the publisher’s insistence, rather than the egg which the artist had originally painted. Greyscale snippets from the cover photo illustrate each of the sixteen stories.

This was the top unread book that I acquired in 2021. Next on that pile is Twelve Caesars, by Mary Beard.

Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle

Second paragraph of third chapter (“Elizabeth on Ireland”, by Leah S. Marcus):

In shortchanging Ireland in our volume of Works we were doubtless influenced by an anachronistic view of Britain as comprising its present territories and therefore including Scotland, but not most of Tudor Ireland. We were likewise influenced by the fact that James VI of Scotland went on to become James I of England. But we were, I suspect, also motivated by a desire to present Queen Elizabeth I in a positive light. The project of editing her writings was hatched during the heyday of second-wave feminism: we wanted to show that a woman could demonstrate all the skills and savvy that were usually attributed to men, and Elizabeth was for us a prime example. We avoided Ireland, perhaps, because the story of Elizabeth in relation to Ireland is not, by and large, a success story. Most of Elizabeth’s biographers – especially the most hagiographic among them – have also had disproportionately little to say about Elizabeth in Ireland.

Back in 2009 I had immense fun attending a conference on Elizabeth I and Ireland, held at the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut. This is the book of that conference, with a number of the papers that were presented, refined for the delectation of an academic audience.

Lots of interesting stuff here. I admit that some of the literature chapters sailed over my head – my Irish is not up to epic poetry, even in short doses, and my tolerance for Spenser is rather low as well. But this is amply compensated by the chapters on politics and what might be called ideology; what did the rulers of Ireland, including Elizabeth herself, think that they were doing, or trying to do? Of course, it’s a messy picture, with individuals located along a spectrum ranging from those who wanted to engineer a durable political settlement to those who were just in it to get as much property as possible. But it’s lovely to have so much evidence, from different perspectives, gathered in one set of covers, and it took me back to that exciting weekend in 2009, of which I still have fond memories.

My not very secret agenda in reading books about Elizabethan Ireland is to look for mentions of my ancestor, Sir Nicholas White, who as Master of the Rolls was one of the leading Irish politicians of the day. I spotted three: Ciaran Brady describes him as one of “the most far-seeing members of the English-Irish elite”, and Valerie McGowan-Doyle mentions him twice, once briefly as the object of a patronage dispute but also quoting at length from one of his letters to Burghley, defending the right of the Queen’s loyal subjects in Ireland to complain about high taxes. All very useful if I ever get my project of writing his biography off the ground.

This was the unread non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Deep State of Europe: Welcome to Hell, by the late great Basil Coronakis.

Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He had put his mother, a highly intelligent woman of German parentage, through a long and difficult confinement: she had died a few days after his birth, leaving Percival in the care of his father and aunt. Theirs was a modestly well-to-do Cornish family, whose ancient Celtic stock had been infused, perhaps since pre-Roman times, with the blood of successive exotic visitors to Cornwall’s shores. Percival’s father, who had been a child at the time of the Great War, joined up soon after the more recent hostilities were declared, and died in France when Percival was twelve.

A book in the series based on Honoré Lechasseur aka the Time Hunter, a character from Daniel O’Mahoney’s Telos novella, Cabinet of Light, which I see I read in April 2017 but never wrote up here. This particular one is a bit of a homage to Olaf Stapledon; I’m afraid I felt it was too invested in a fandom that I don’t share, and it went over my head. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2016. Next on that list is Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

Second paragraph of third section:

My knowledge of garden Aves had been limited to those of northern Europe but a young New Wye gardener, in whom I was interested (see note to line 998), helped me to identify the profiles of quite a number of tropical-looking little strangers and their comical calls; and, naturally, every tree top plotted its dotted line toward the ornithological work on my desk to which I would gallop from the lawn in nomenclatorial agitation. How hard I found to fit the name “robin” to the suburban impostor, the gross fowl, with its untidy dull-red livery and the revolting gusto it showed when consuming long, sad, passive worms!

The only Nabokov book I knew before this was Lolita. Pale Fire is very different. It’s an international political murder mystery told through the medium of footnotes to an epic poem. I have to confess that I really wondered what the heck was going on, until it all became clear quite late in the day. It’s a great example of an unreliable narrator who reveals unwittingly what is really going on – rather like Humbert’s unwitting self-revelation in Lolita; I wonder if this is a common theme for Nabokov? Anyway, I enjoyed it more than I expected at first. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired last year and my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell, and The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman.

Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. George R. R. Martin

Second paragraph of third story (“Walking the Floor Over You” by Walton Simons):

A lot of the customers were smoking, but Carlotta’s routine was doing the opposite. It wasn’t the material, and her delivery was spot on. Well, as good as it ever was, anyway.

The last of the books I got with the Zelazny Humble Bundle in early 2016, an anthology of vaguely linked stories in the Wild Cards series. I quite liked the first one, “Storming Space” by Michael Cassutt, about a secret space programme. None of the rest was particularly special, and one of them, “Promises”, by Stephen Leigh, really annoyed me.

“Promises” is set in Rathlin Island, off the coast of Northern Ireland, and like the rest of the Wild Cards stories the background is that an alien virus has infected a small but significant proportion of humanity with superhuman (or just inconvenient) powers. The major infection was in New York in 1946 but it turns out that there was also a smaller infection in Belfast in 1962. The infected “jokers” have been isolated on Rathlin Island.

So, two points of detail. First of all, although it is made clear that Rathlin Island and Northern Ireland as a whole are still part of the UK in the 1990s (as in our own dear timeline), the local police in Northern Ireland are referred to as the “garda” (sic). As many of you know, the Garda Síochána are the police in the Republic; “garda” is not a viable Irish translation of either “Royal Ulster Constabulary” or “Police Service of Northern Ireland”. (That would be “póilíní”.)

Also, one of the protagonists talks casually about how she could have got an abortion in Belfast in 1962. I know we are in alternate history here, but I can’t see the late Brookeborough government suddenly legislating to overturn the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 even under alien attack.

On top of that the ebook is badly formatted, as is the case with other ebooks in the Humble Bundle published by the now defunct iBooks.

Deuces Down was republished by in 2021 with more stories and a linking narrative, and reviews suggest that this has been a significant improvement. You can get the new version here.

This was both my top unread book acquired in 2016 and the sf book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves. Next on those piles respectively are The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama, and The Best of Ian McDonald.

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Second paragraph of third chapter:

— Мы всё это учтём, — сказал наконец Нунан, дорисовав десятого для ровного счёта чёртика и захлопнув блокнот. — В самом деле, безобразие…“We’ll keep all that in mind, Valentine,” Noonan said finally, finishing his tenth doodle for an even count and slamming his notebook shut. “You’re right, this is a disgrace.”

One of the classic sf works of Eastern Europe, well indeed of the world, which I realised that I had never actually read in English – when living in Germany in 1986 I bought a German translation, which is probably the most recent work of any length that I have read in German.

I enjoyed it more than I expected. There have been some notable incomprehensible alien incursion stories since, thinking of Ian McDonald, Jeff VanderMeer and Tade Thompson in particular, but this is the first really detailed exploration of what the SF Encyclopedia calls a Zone. The aliens have come and gone, leaving obscure and dangerous objects for us to look at and attempt to exploit; the effect this has on the immediate human society of those who try to explore it is brutally depicted. It’s interesting that the characters are coded as Americans, even in the original Russian. It’s also mercifully short. You can get it here.

This was my top unread sf book. Next on that pile is A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske.

The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus du Sautoy

Second paragraph of third chapter:

From ancient civilizations all around the world we have a fascinating assortment of games. Stones thrown in the sand, sticks tossed in the air, tokens placed in hollows carved into wooden blocks, hands used to compete, pictures drawn on cards. From ancient mancala to Monopoly, from the Japanese game of go to the poker tables of Vegas, games are invariably won by whoever is best at taking a mathematical, analytical approach. In this chapter I will show you how maths is the secret to the winning streak.

I read another of du Sautoy’s books twenty years ago in my early book-blogging days. This one is a straightforward romp through various bits of mathematical theory – prime numbers, topology, probability, cryptography and dynamics. I didn’t learn a lot from it, but it is breezily done and will probably appeal to smart older kids who are presumably the target audience. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is Deuces Down, edited by John Jos. Miller.

The World Set Free: A Fantasia of the Future, by H.G. Wells

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Leblanc was one of those ingenuous men whose lot would have been insignificant in any period of security, but who have been caught up to an immortal role in history by the sudden simplification of human affairs through some tragical crisis, to the measure of their simplicity. Such a man was Abraham Lincoln, and such was Garibaldi. And Leblanc, with his transparent childish innocence, his entire self-forgetfulness, came into this confusion of distrust and intricate disaster with an invincible appeal for the manifest sanities of the situation. His voice, when he spoke, was ‘full of remonstrance.’ He was a little bald, spectacled man, inspired by that intellectual idealism which has been one of the peculiar gifts of France to humanity. He was possessed of one clear persuasion, that war must end, and that the only way to end war was to have but one government for mankind. He brushed aside all other considerations. At the very outbreak of the war, so soon as the two capitals of the belligerents had been wrecked, he went to the president in the White House with this proposal. He made it as if it was a matter of course. He was fortunate to be in Washington and in touch with that gigantic childishness which was the characteristic of the American imagination. For the Americans also were among the simple peoples by whom the world was saved. He won over the American president and the American government to his general ideas; at any rate they supported him sufficiently to give him a standing with the more sceptical European governments, and with this backing he set to work — it seemed the most fantastic of enterprises — to bring together all the rulers of the world and unify them. He wrote innumerable letters, he sent messages, he went desperate journeys, he enlisted whatever support he could find; no one was too humble for an ally or too obstinate for his advances; through the terrible autumn of the last wars this persistent little visionary in spectacles must have seemed rather like a hopeful canary twittering during a thunderstorm. And no accumulation of disasters daunted his conviction that they could be ended.

Next in my reading of Wells’ novels, this was written in 1913 and published in 1914. It’s quite a short book, an account of a near future where nuclear weapons are developed, major cities are devastated and the nations of the world come together to decide against future war and create a Utopia. It must have been at least indirectly inspiring for the creation of the United Nations thirty years later, and it’s striking how much closer to the mark he got with the impact of new technology on war than he did in The War in the Air, only six years earlier.

I have to say that as a novel it is not all that great. Good chaps, some of whom are royalty, get together in a remote resort to sort the world out, and there is not a lot of drama other than the big bangs of war. There are two named women characters, who have a dialogue on women’s place in the new order at the end. (And there’s a point-of-view unnamed secretary in Paris who witnesses one of the bombings in an earlier chapter.) It’s part of the chain of thought that ends with The Shape of Things to Come, and I think interesting mainly for that reason. You can get it here.

This was my top unread novel by Wells. The next is Love and Mr Lewisham.

Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland

Second paragraph of third chapter:

However, the Arrow-Debreu theory does not take into account adaptive interactions typical of a CAS [complex adaptive system]. From the CAS viewpoint, the ‘fully rational’ agent assumption is a very strong assumption. Each agent must act on full knowledge of the future consequences of its actions, including the responses of other agents to those actions. Clearly no realistic agent possesses such omnipotence. Arrow was aware of this difficulty from the start, pointing out that real markets involve diverse traders of bounded rationality, with different agents employing different strategies. Moreover, realistic agents change their strategies as they gain experience with the diverse actions of other traders—they adapt. Markets made up of such agents rarely reach an equilibrium, even temporarily; rather, there are often large fluctuations (‘bubbles’ and ‘crashes’) caused by the traders’ ongoing, diverse adaptations.

On the basis of reading two books from the series, I’m rather impressed with the Very Short Introductions from Oxford University Press (the other one I have read is Modern China, by my old friend Rana Mitter). I complained after reading one of the earlier accounts of complexity that I was still looking for a good introduction to the topic, and I think I have found it. Mathematics is not really my thing these days, but I found this a very helpful overview of the theoretical side of complex adaptive systems, pulling together a lot of topics that I vaguely knew about. I still need to find something on the more organisational management side of it, but this is a good start. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019 which was not written by H.G. Wells. Next on that pile is When Christians were Jews, by Paula Fredriksen.

Representing Europeans: A Pragmatic Approach, by Richard Rose

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Europe has always been a continent of diverse peoples but diversity has never been an obstacle to political union. To strengthen alliances or gain territory, monarchies arranged dynastic marriages that created the multi-national empires that dominated Europe before 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an extreme example of diversity, for the majority of peoples living under the Habsburg crown were neither Austrians nor Hungarians. However, nationalist movements led to the break-up of multi-national empires. After the First World War, new nation-states were created that emphasized ethnic exclusivity, even when they had large minority populations and Germany under Adolf Hitler sought continental domination claiming to represent a Herrenvolk (master race). The Second World War discredited claims to national superiority while the Holocaust and the displacement of minorities increased the ethnic homogeneity of European states.

Richard Rose will turn 90 in April this year; his first two books, co-authored in 1960, were an analysis of the 1959 election and an investigation of why the Labour Party kept losing. He also carried out a very important analysis of public sentiment about politics and government in Northern Ireland just before the Troubles broke out, which has become an essential baseline for understanding what happened last century. My father greatly respected him, and when he came to Brussels in between the Brexit referendum and the pandemic, I made contact and we had a couple of very friendly dinners on the Grand’ Place.

He was kind enough to give me a copy of this short book about the political system of the EU, and its democratic deficits. It’s a lucid guide to how the structures actually work – too many such guides are hypnotised by the institutions’ own accounts of themselves – and makes a lot of the points on the dangers of disconnection between the EU decision-making process and the citizens who are affected by it. The book came out before Brexit (and assumes that it won’t happen) and before the pandemic, both of which have changed things a bit but maybe not all that much.

I’m going to disagree, however, with a couple of the points he makes. He spends an entire chapter criticising the allocation of seats between countries in the European Parliament, which (as you know, Bob) varies between Malta’s six (one MEP per 80,000 population) to Germany’s ninety-six (one MEP per 800,000 population). I don’t really think that this is a problem. Divergences from proportionality are tolerated in a lot of democratic electoral systems for different reasons, usually in order to give extra representation to groups who need it. The large member states already have a massive amount of soft power within the EU system, and I don’t find it outrageous that they shave a couple of the MEPs that they would have been entitled to on a strict population ratio, in order that the diversity of voices from smaller states is not completely extinguished. I think Rose’s argument also faces an issue about differential turnout between different countries, which he doesn’t address.

He also has a solution that I disagree with – holding EU-wide referendums on crucial issues. Here I think he unrealistically discounts the practical and political difficulties of doing this; election laws and procedures are very different across the 27 member states, referendum laws even more so; and how do you explain to, say, Slovaks that the democratic choice they make nationally can be over-ridden by French and German voters? My own feeling is that we should not try too hard to erode the extent to which the EU is a union of member states, since that’s an important element of its legitimacy.

Anyway, these are debating points surrounded by thorough and lean analysis. You can get it here.

Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

By the time I was born, she [Sharon’s great-grandmother] was already in her late 70s and devoted to daily Bible reading and listening to religious music on an old record player.

I got this after corresponding with the author about the art of her husband, Charles Pfahl. It’s the story of a grim childhood of neglect and occasional abuse with alcoholic parents in Ohio and Brooklyn, followed by a series of unsuccessful relationships and marriages, at the end of which she reunites with Pfahl two decades after splitting up with him, and they resolve to make a go of it again (and apparently did quite well). The cover illustration was painted by Pfahl for the book, but he died before it was published.

There’s a lot of personal insight here, and the various awful relatives and boyfriends / husbands are all portrayed with humanity – even though they behave terribly, they are not monsters but flawed human beings. There’s also a tremendous sense of place; Akron, Ohio has a completely different feel to Brooklyn, which is again different from Manhattan. And (always a plus) it’s quite short despite the brutal subject matter. You can get it here.

The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Long night?”

Part of the 2020 Hugo Voter packet submitted by Diana M. Pho, but I’ve only just now got to it. It was very nice of several editors that year to give us more novels to read (in a year when we needed them), but it is of course impossible for the reader to know what contribution the editor made to the final product.

It’s a fantasy novel set in a parallel world’s medieval Middle Eastern city, where the guild of assassins is struggling for legitimacy and against an unknown opponent, who our young protagonist is tasked with tracking down. Excellent world-building, layering various bits of ghost lore onto the secure foundation of the Thousand and One Nights; I groaned at the sudden-yet-inevitable betrayal near the end, but actually it was played out better than I had anticipated. It’s the first of a trilogy; while I enjoyed it, I won’t make special efforts to get the other two. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2020 (after Penric’s Progress, which I can’t find). Next on that pile is Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon, by Al Worden.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić

Second paragraph of third chapter, in original Croatian, and English translation:

– Koje?‘What?’

This won the Tiptree Award in 2010, but is also of interest to me because I know Croatia a bit – we lived in Zagreb for several months in 1998, and I get back when I can.

It’s a novel in three parts. In the first, the (Croatian) narrator talks about her elderly (Bulgarian) mother in Zagreb, and visits Bulgaria; the second part, which occupies the middle two quarters of the book, is about three old Czech ladies at a spa, and the various people they interact with, including a Bosnian masseur; and a fictional anthropologist’s guide to the lore of Baba Yaga, the mythic Slavic crone who flies in various conveyances (often a mortar bowl) across the land.

The stories are engaging in themselves, and also very layered in folklore, with the last section explaining some of the roots of the first two. It’s very entertaining to see old themes reworked, and it works in part because the old folkoric themes are so powerful and tap us at a deep level, and in part because it is funny. The third section, an academic essay in form, ought not to work – I’ve seen other authors earnestly explaining the symbolism of their stories, usually very badly – but it does, I think because Ugrešić’s humour comes through as well.

I also found it interesting that Ugrešić has pulled together perspectives from several different Slavic traditions – Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech and Bosnian – and found threads unifying them. Certainly I had always thought of Baba Yaga purely in Russian terms, and it’s salient to be reminded that there are a lot of other places that share the old Slavic traditions in different ways.

It’s also quite short, another point in its favour. You can get it here.

Of the other works on the Honor List for that year’s Tiptree Award, I think the only one I have read is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. There were also four other novels, a non-fiction book, and two short stories (both by the same writer).

I read all five BSFA shortlisted novels that year and recorded my vote, which was for Ken MacLeod’s The Restoration Game; it was won by my second choice, The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. The other three nominees were Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes; The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi; and Lightborn, by Tricia Sullivan.

I also read all six novels on the Clarke shortlist that year. I would have voted for The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, but was happy enough that the winner was Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes. The others were Lightborn, by Tricia Sullivan, again, joined by Generosity, by Richard Powers; Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness; and Declare, by Tim Powers.

That was the year that both Hugo and Nebula Best Novel voters went for Connie Willis’ massive and awful Blackout/All Clear. For Best Dramatic Presentation, both sets of voters chose Inception, which I think has stood the test of time better.

The following year, again, I have read both the Clarke and BSFA winners, but not the Tiptree winner, Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston, so it’s next on this pile.

February books

Non-fiction 4 (YTD 13)
The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus Du Sautoy
Timelash, by Phil Pascoe
Listen, by Dewi Small
Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle

Non-genre 1 (YTD 3)
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov

SF 19 (YTD 41)
σ2 (did not finish)
Roadside Picnic, by Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky
Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. John J. Miller
χ2 (did not finish)
ψ2 (did not finish)
ω2 (did not finish)
α3 (did not finish)
β3 (did not finish)
Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser Hallard
ε3 (did not finish)
ζ3 (did not finish)
Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C Clarke

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 8)
Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light, by Rona Munro
Lucy Wilson & the Bledoe Cadets, by Tim Gambrell
Doctor Who: Timelash, by Glen McCoy

Comics 1 (YTD 5)
Agent Provocateur, by Gary Russell et al

6,100 pages (YTD 16,000)
12/28 (YTD 29/73) by non-male writers (McGowan-Doyle, σ2, τ2, υ2, φ2, χ2, ψ2, α3, β3, ε3, Munro, η3)
9/28 (YTD 14/73) by a non-white writer (ρ2, σ2, τ2, υ2, φ2, χ2, ψ2, α3, McCoy)
385 books currently tagged “unread”, 31 less than last month after some recalibration.

Reading now
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
The Best of Ian McDonald

Coming soon (perhaps)
Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis, Elena Casagrande and Arianna Florean
Warring States, by Mags Halliday
The HAVOC Files: The Laughing Gnome, ed ???
Kerblam!, by Naomi Jacobs and Thomas L. Rodebaugh
The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords, by James Mortimer
The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits, by Simon Schama
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond
The Deep State of Europe: Welcome to Hell, by Basil Coronakis
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel
Trouble the Waters: Tales from the Deep Blue, ed. Sheree Renee Thomas
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville
Redwood and Wildfire, by Andrea Hairston
My Family And Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
Winter, by Ali Smith

The Karmic Curve: How to have it (nearly) all, but not all at the same time, by “Mary I. Williams” (Ian Vollbracht and Nadine Toscani)

Second paragraph (with heading) of third chapter:

Tip 7 – Well-trained, well-educated, enthusiastic

We may be woefully out of date, but we struggle to improve much on the ancient advice on how to succeed in an Oxbridge interview. Well-trained means you know your stuff. Well-educated means you have some breadth, knowledge of the world, and at least an inkling of the social skills you’ll need to get on over time. We can’t teach you these things here, but any good interviewer will certainly test them.

I picked this up after a positive mention in POLITICO years ago, but have only now got around to it. It’s a book about managing work-life balance, a genre I used to read fairly frequently but haven’t looked at for years (perhaps because I feel my work and life are a bit more balanced than they used to be). The point of local interest is that the authors are based in Brussels, so some of the anecdotes have more resonance for me than might be the case for most readers.

It’s quite a thin book, to be honest, but there are a couple of good points. One nice tip is to have a special email account to which you send the venting emails that you might otherwise foolishly send to colleagues and contacts. I also liked the characterisation of the Scrappy-Doo in the workplace:

They work hard all of the time, battle for everything, and then wag their little tails whenever Uncle, or Auntie, Scooby gives them a cookie. And bosses love them for it. Note also that scrappies may be bright and capable, but this is certainly not a requirement for moderately – in some cases hugely – successful Scrappy-hood, however exhausting it may be.

We’ve all known people like this, and indeed a lot of us have been people like this at some point in our career; and the authors give some useful tips on dealing with Scrappies compassionately but effectively.

You can get it here.

This was the shortest book that I had acquired in 2016 which was still on the unread shelves. Next on that pile is Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard.

Death Draws Five, by John Jos. Miller

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It certainly wasn’t his brain. If he’d thought about it at all, he’d have run away from the flying bullets. Whatever it was that made him accompany Ray was something deeper in his make-up. His heart. Perhaps his gut. His reaction was more instinctive than rational. Jerry would have sighed to himself if he’d had the time. He’d always considered himself a smart guy, and this was just crazy.

A full-length novel in GRRM’s Wild Cards series, which I got in the same Humble Bundle as the Amber prequels. The setting is a roughly contemporary America decades after thousands were infected with a virus that gave them varying superhero powers. A former President and a dissident wing of the Vatican believe that the child of two such “Aces” is the Messiah reborn, or possibly the Antichrist. It’s tricky to handle this topic in pulp format, but Miller makes a good fist of it.

Unfortunately I’m going to complain again about the formatting of the electronic book. Most of the chapter headings have been displaced to the end of the book, as a weird appendix, and that means the text is not broken up helpfully for the reader. The publisher, iBooks, folded before the paper version of the book went on general release, but that’s no excuse. It’s not as bad as the Zelazny collection, but it’s not good.

You can get the Tor re-release here; hopefully it won’t have the same problem.

This was the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next is another Wild Cards book, Deuces Down, an anthology edited by Miller.

Neptune, vols 1 and 2, by Leo

Second frame of third page of volume 1:

It’s the end of three years in Paris, of boring courses, unpleasant trainings and being forced to follow military discipline, which I can’t stand.

Second frame of third page of volume 2:

They finally let themselves be convinced, given that our minds were made up. Once the decision was taken, we got on with our preparations and said the difficult goodbyes to our comrades.

As my regular reader knows, I have a long-term fascination with the Aldébaran series of bandes dessinées by Brazilian-French artist Leo. Last year he published a two-episode story, Neptune, which takes us on the next steps of the story of the series’ central character, Kim, and her new young colleague, Manon. Despite their young age, their life experience makes them ideal members of a team sent to explore a mysterious alien structure that appears in Earth’s solar system; it’s a nicely done homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama, and other similar stories. The mysterious object turns out to contain some mysterious humans in a jungle habitat filled with new forms of alien life, so Leo executes his usual flamboyant otherworldly landscapes. It’s a good taster for the rest of his works, so if you want to see if Leo writes the kind of bandes dessinées that you might like, you could do worse than starting with Neptune. You can get volume 1 here and volume 2 here in French; volume 1 comes out in English translation next week, and volume 2 in April.

Listen, by Dewi Small

Listen, from the first series of Doctor Who episodes starring Peter Capaldi, is one of my favourite stories of the era. Not a lot actually happens. We get the opening of the relationship between Clara and Danny Pink; we get an encounter from the far future and a descendant of Danny’s; we get the Doctor investigating a phantom in everyone’s psyche; and we get Clara intervening at a key point in the Doctor’s own childhood. It’s not crammed with action. But perhaps, by not trying too hard, we end up with a better outcome.

One of its successes is the very last scene, which sets up a sort of recursion, with the Doctor’s future personality explained to him by Clara, using words originally crafted by Terrace Dicks. It contrasts with a lot of the other revelations we have had about the Doctor’s origins over the years (most recently the Timeless Child) in its subtlety and ambiguity – almost answering a question with another question. It’s also noteworthy that we don’t actually find an answer to the Doctor’s question, and yet the story is satisfactorily closed.

I also think it’s worth noting that the disastrous date between Clara and Danny riffs off one of Moffat’s most consistent and successful themes, of people miscommunicating. My personal favourite example of this is the Coupling episode, The Girl With Two Breasts, followed by the scene with the twins and the pickpocket in the Tintin movie. But here this situation is played not for laughs but as a deadly serious case of PTSD, and it is done very well.

Dewi Small has written one of the shorter but punchier Black Archives about this story. In a brief introduction, he sets out his stall: this story is based on psychology and he will use a Freudian lens to look at it. It works a lot better than the similarly psychological Black Archive on The Face of Evil.

The first chapter, “What if the Big Bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s afraid of the dark?”, which takes up more than 40% of the whole text, explains the Freudian concepts of the Uncanny and repression with reference to Who and Henry James, and looks at the significance of the barn.

The second chapter, “I Don’t Take Orders, Clara”, looks at the role of Clara and how it transcends the usual role of the companion in Who.

The third chapter, “A Soldier So Brave He Doesn’t Need a Gun”, unpacks the character and importance of Danny/ Rupert. Its second paragraph is:

 The new Doctor sets out the revised terms of his and Clara’s relationship when he addresses his ‘many mistakes’ and tells her that he’s ‘not [her] boyfriend’ at the end of his first episode Deep Breath (2014). However, Clara was almost immediately repositioned into a new romantic coupling, providing another layer of impediment to the continuance of the previous relationship between her and the Time Lord.

The brief fourth chapter, “This is It, The End of Everything, The Last Planet” looks at the end of the world as presented in Listen and Utopia, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Fredric Brown’s “Knock”.

And there is a brief conclusion saying again how good the story is, which I agree with.

This is a brief review of one of the briefer Black archives, but I recommend it. You can get it here (NB the picture on the page is for a different book).

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Kerblam! (37)

Timelash, by Phil Pascoe (and Glen McCoy)

Before I start – Colin Baker is here at Gallifrey One this weekend, and looking well – last time I saw him was in Brussels in 2020 and he seemed a bit frail, but it looks like the last few years have been good to him.

I remember catching the second episode of Timelash, but not the first, when it was first broadcast in 1985, the month before my 18th birthday. My main memory is that it was pretty obvious who Herbert was meant to be, and otherwise it did not make a lot of sense.

When I rewatched it in 2008, I was apocalyptic:

Timelash comes very close to The Twin Dilemma as being the worst Who story ever. Paul Darrow is just awful. Really awful. The glove-puppet aliens are just awful. Really awful. The pointless continuity with an unbroadcast Third Doctor story is just pointless. The inclusion of HG Wells is just stupid. The climbing wall scene is especially unconvincing. And what happens to all the people exiled to the twelfth century? Are they just left there? The only saving grace is that Colin Baker’s Doctor is a little less annoying here than elsewhere. But that is not saying much.

When I came back to it a couple of years later for my Great Rewatch, I was more forgiving:

One of the things I didn’t like about Timelash was the same essentialism [as with the aliens in The Two Doctors] – the Borad being evil at least in part because he looks evil. Another is the fact that the time travel part of the plot is rather botched (I am a fan of the twelfth century and would have liked to see some action there). But actually the story as a whole, and Paul Darrow, annoyed me much less on this viewing. Most of the plot makes sense, and is in keeping with the spirit of Who. While the production values are rather poor, everyone does seem to be aware of this and carries on as best they can in the circumstances. And having had almost 19 years with no real historical figures portrayed as a speaking role, now, with H.G. Wells, we have two in the same season. But I think he is the last in Old Who. (The Queen and Courtney Pine in Silver Nemesis don’t count, as neither speaks and the latter is not portrayed by an actor but by himself.)

I have to confess that this time around, I swung back to my earlier opinion. I found the script so annoying, the momsters so amateurish and the treatment of Peri so offensive that I was rather distracted from the actual plot. It is certainly in my bottom ten Old Who stories, maybe in my bottom three. I can only really recommend it to completists and to fans of Paul Darrow. 

Pennant Roberts directed some very good Blake’s 7 episodes, and also The Face of Evil and several other Who stories. But somehow the magic did not work here; a number of scenes seem very under-rehearsed, and the lead actors don’t seem to be under control. Clearly a lot of energy and money had been used up in earlier stories in the season, and in the pantomime which JNT was also directing Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant.

Author Glen McCoy, who at the time was working as an ambulance driver, had never written for television before, and has since developed a career as a motivational speaker. Incidentally he was the first person of colour to write a Doctor Who script – he describes himself to me as Anglo-Indian. (The first non-white director was Waris Hussein, way back at the start.)

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

Peri was more than delighted, and left her position by the central console, assuming the problem had been solved. Yet her approach received an unfriendly glare from the Time Lord. Peri stopped in her tracks. ‘It is okay now, isn’t it?’

When I first read I it in 2008, I wrote:

It’s not a fantastic book, but it is at least at the level of quality of the average Who novelisation, unlike the original series; it makes you realise just how much the TV original suffered from a) Paul Darrow’s overacting as Tekker and b) the pathetic hand-puppet monsters. One of those cases where the reader’s imagination is better at supplying the effects.

As I already said, this time around I was so annoyed by the TV story’s flaws that I rather forgot that there was a plot when watching it, and reading the novelisation was a useful reminder that there was some purpose to all the running around. Some (but not all) of the sillier lines are cut. A surprising amount of the action is reported indirectly rather than in dialogue.

Given that McCoy wrote the book as well as the series, this is the first Doctor Who novel by a non-white writer. You can get it here.

Phil Pascoe reveals at the end of his Black Archive monograph that he actually loves this story, and it is intimately tied to very pleasant very personal childhood memories. It’s not the first Black Archive about a story which the writer loves but fandom generally doesn’t, so it’s always interesting to see what approach is taken. As he explains in the first chapter, “The Waves of Time”, Pascoe has decided to look at the story through the lens of H.G. Wells, and the extent to which he “haunts” the text. As I have myself been working through Wells’ novels (next up: The World Set Free), I found it an interesting approach.

The second chapter, “Working for the Benefit of All Karfelons”, looks at the economic set-up of the planet Karfel and applies a Wellsian critique to it.

The third chapter, “Don’t I Have a Say in All This?”, looks at just how badly Peri is treated in the story nd links that rather weakly to H.G. Wells’ feminism in theory and practice. The second paragraph of this chapter is:

I want to emphasise that I do not believe that anyone involved in making the story deliberately and maliciously set out to make a work which discriminates against women. However, there is much in Timelash that, to 21st-century audiences, would appear sexist. Does our unhaunting of the text require this Black Archive to become an apologia, or are some of the more egregious aspects of the story beyond reasonable defence? We encounter the problem, in reconsidering a piece of popular culture from decades past, of it no longer meeting today’s standards or expectations. Timelash can also be haunted from its future, our present, distorting the picture of how the story did what it did in its historical moment of 1985.

The fourth chapter, “Can’t You Speak, Dumbbell?”, looks at voices: interruptions, Paul Darrow’s performance, the Old Man as ventriloquist’s dummy, and the number of times people speak out of shot (to which I would have added the novelisation’s frequent use of reported speech).

The fifth chapter, “Science… Fiction” looks for Wells’ direct influence on Doctor Who and finds some, though not especially in Timelash.

The sixth chapter, “Food Which is Rightfully Ours”, looks at human meat in Who and Wells, and veganism and vegetarianism in Doctor Who.

The seventh chapter, “I Didn’t Realise Dying Heroically Was Such a Strain on the Nerves”, looks at two scenes near the end (in the Tardis console room) written by Eric Saward because the original script under-ran, suggesting that they subtly critique the entire story.

The eighth chapter, “Strange How You Can Forget What You Used to Look Like”, looks at the furniture, asks what the title actually means, and then leads into the ninth chapter, “Wish I Could Have That on Tape”, which attempts to reconstruct the Third Doctor’s adventure on Karfel.

The tenth chapter, “…Wash Us All Clean”, disarmingly admits the writer’s fond childhood memories of the story, separated from fan criticism.

The whole thing is interesting, though not all of the interesting parts are about Timelash. Perhaps that is just as well. 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 Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Kerblam! (37)

Lucy Wilson & the Bledoe Cadets, by Tim Gambrell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

James shot to his feet. ‘Smugglers? Quick, everyone! Split up! Hide!’

Next in the series of novels exploring the timeline of Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, this one has a solid enough story with our hero incarnated into an ally of his own granddaughter and zooming back in time to investigate alien doings at a stone circle on the moor near the Brig’s childhood home. It’s a decent enough reheat of several well-worn themes. I’m afraid I almost tossed it aside after an excruciating yokel pub conversation in the first chapter, but it was just about worth persisting with. You can get it here.

I see that another version of the story has been published from Lucy’s point of view. Not sure that I will bother.

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light, by Rona Munro

Rona Munro is the only person to have written stories for both Old Who and New Who, having scripted the very last Seventh Doctor story before the cancellation, and then this story for the last Peter Capaldi season. I also saw one of her other plays at the Web Theatre in Newtownards in 2013, a single-actor piece with the only member of the cast playing three parts. I can’t remember the name of the piece, but research suggests it may have been “Women Behaving Madly”.

The Eaters of Light is a rare Doctor Who story set in Scotland (though filmed of course ni Wales) – especially considering that Capaldi and Moffatt are both Scottish, it’s a little surprising that they did not go there more often. It’s less surprising that they got a Scottish writer of the calibre of Munro to take them there. I rewatched the story before reading the new novelisation, and as I had expected, I enjoyed it a lot. (Here’s the BBC page if you want to refresh yourself quickly.)

The Twelfth Doctor, Bill and Nardole arrive in Scotland and decide to investigate the disappearance of the Ninth Legion. They travel back to the first century AD and get involved in the local conflict between Picts and Romans, but manage to persuade both to unite in the face of a Cthulhoid alien enemy attempting to breach the boundaries of the universe. It’s a very simple plot, but it’s very nicely done, with some nice reveals when, for instance, Bill becomes aware of the TARDIS translation circuits, or the two factions realise just how young each other are. At the end of the episode there’s a coda with Missy being released from imprisonment by the Doctor. Season Thirteen is my favourite of the Capaldi seasons and this story is one of the reasons why.

The novelisation of the story, also by Rona Munro, was one of the few Doctor Who books released last year. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Inside Nardole looked around in appreciation. Every surface was painted and decorated: every bowl, every bit of wall, every stool, every piece of cloth. Everything carried geometric patterns in red and blue, green and brown, yellow and purple, the designs echoing the tattoos and the knitted clothes the fierce little people around them were wearing.

The book, as with the best Who novelisations, brings more joyous detail to the plot and fills out the author’s intentions. (174 pages for 45 minutes is pretty generous by the historical standards of novelisations – compare the 143 pages that Terrance Dicks got for ten 25-minute episodes of The War Games.) It turns very much into a story of Picts and Romans, with the Doctor and friends intervening in a local story. This makes the ending, where they reject the Doctor’s help and take responsibility for guarding the Gate themselves, all the stronger. Some of the nicer one-liners are lost, but this is a differently shaped story and in some ways it is stronger for it. The scene with Missy at the end is omitted. Strongly recommended. You can get it here.

Agent Provocateur, by Gary Russell et al

Second frame of part three:

This was the first in the IDW series of Tenth Doctor comics, published in 2008. I realised that I have read most of the others in this sequence – The Forgotten, Through Time and Space, Fugitive, Tesseract, and Final Sacrifice. The others are all by Tony Lee and all, to be honest, better. This has six loosely linked stories which don’t really cohere internally and with art which, while very nicely executed, doesn’t always end up looking much like the Tenth Doctor or Martha Jones as we know them. Though I did appreciate the reappearance ot the Cat People from Russell’s long-ago novel, and smiled at this in-joke in a brief discussion of E.R.:

Doctor Corday is of course played by Alex Kingston, whose run as River Song started while these were being published.

Still, it’s enjoyable enough popcorn for the fannish mind. You can get it here.

Next post in this series will be the Titan Comics album Revolutions of Terror.

Battlefield, by Philip Purser-Hallard (and Ben Aaronovitch, and Marc Platt)

When I first watched Battlefield in 2007 I was not at all impressed.

Battlefield must have been the killer blow which led to the cancellation. It is simply awful. The story is incomprehensible, the direction (particularly of the all-important action scenes) both uninspiring and incoherent, the supposed killer-end-of-the-universe monster is atrocious, and the background music some of the worst of all time. I haven’t seen much late-eighties Doctor Who, but I shall be very surprised if I find another story as bad as this. I am among that minority (even among the small number who have watched it) who thought Ben Aaronovitch’s other story, Remembrance of the Daleks, was bad too, so it comes as little surprise to me.

Surely the programme’s makers must have realised what a risk they were taking with an uneven writer for the opening story of a season where the entire programme faced cancellation? [In retrospect this was very unfair of me, and I have enjoyed a lot of Aaronovitch’s other work.] Ye who complain about Torchwood, or about how not quite every story of new Who comes up to the standards you have come to expect of Buffy or Battlestar Galactica, some time please sit down and watch Battlefield, and marvel.

Anyway, I should not be wholly negative. [Indeed.] Nicholas Courtney puts in one of his best performances as the Brigadier, and has a great confrontation scene with Jean Marsh playing the chief villain. (The two of them had appeared together in Doctor Who 23 years earlier, playing brother and sister galactic agents in The Daleks’ Master Plan.) But that’s about it; even McCoy and Aldred seem to have little idea of what is going on.

Curiously I was much more forgiving when I reached it in my Great Rewatch:

In my last post I recanted my previous disdain for Remembrance of the Daleks, and uneasily anticipated that I might have to do the same for Battlefield. And so it proved to be; I take it all back, or almost all. Even if the precise background to the intrusion into our world of the Arthurian mythos as interplanetary battle is not really spelled out, it is generally pleasing, and especially pleasing to see the Doctor made to play the role of Merlin in someone else’s drama. (He is definitely more of a Merlin than a Prospero.) The many effects all work to enhance the story, and we have the excellent Bambera / Ancelyn subplot (it was nice to be watching this so soon after Bambera’s return in Tony Lee’s play Rat Trap for Big Finish) and the Ace / Shou Yuing spark too.

Most importantly for us longterm fans, we also have the final return (for Old Who) of Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. It allows him to return to military heroism as he did when we first saw him stalking Yeti in the Underground, rather than the blimpish buffoon of the later Pertwee years; even better, we have Courtney sparking against Jean Marsh as they did, briefly, in 1965 in The Daleks’ Master Plan. The moment when the Brigadier chops the Doctor in order to take the final confrontation himself is fantastic, as is the Doctor’s reaction when he thinks the Brigadier is dead (as had been the original intention of the script). It’s a strong enough start to a strong season.

Rewatching it now, I confess I have swung back again to my first take. It seemed to me incomprehensible and badly made. The direction is dull and the music intrusive and inappropriate. Nicholas Courtney is still very good, but (having been reading some military memoirs recently) I wondered about the nature of UNIT hierarchy, and who precisely was giving him orders to go to Carbury and why these were not communicated to Bambera. The final scene is terrifically stupid, though at least it established that the Seventh Doctor can cook.

The novelisation is a different matter. The second paragraph of the third chapter of Part 1 is:

The roads were slippery with the wet green leaves stripped from the trees by the storm. Zbrigniev’s training took each obstacle of debris in its stride, but although the onslaught had died, the UNIT car never topped fifteen miles an hour.

I wrote in 2008:

I’m not the greatest fan of Ben Aaronovitch, who wrote the original script, but Platt has taken the story and makes it work really well on paper. It makes you realise just how much of the TV version’s problems were down to poor direction, bad music and lousy acting. We get some lovely back-story for the Brigadier and Doris; we get just enough explanation for the Doctor being Merlin to leave room for further speculation without just being stupid; we get the Bambera/Ancelyn relationship decently treated as well. Interestingly Platt has broken the story up into four parts which more or less coincide with the episodes as broadcast, the only novelisation where I remember this being done. [Actually not the only one; see also: Galaxy Four]

An easy pass for the Bechdel test, with Ace and Shou Youing defending each other against the forces of darkness (in the book, we are not distracted by their awful acting).

I still agree with all of that. The middle and end of the story still don’t make much sense, but the beginning is very well developed and that gives you enough momentum to keep going. Intriguingly, Platt’s future Doctor has red hair. You can get it here.

I was very curious as to how Philip Purser-Hallard would approach this story for the Black Archives. In his earlier monograph on Dark Water / Death in Heaven, he persuaded me of some of the redeeming features of a story that I still don’t like very much. Other Black Archive writers have tried the same – thinking here of L.M. Myles on The Ambassadors of Death. But there are other possibilities – James Cooray Smith, writing on The Ultimate Foe, my least favourite of all the stories so far covered by the Black Archive, analyses in forensic detail just how it came to be such a mess.

Purser-Hallard disarmingly admits in a prologue that many of the criticisms of Battlefield are valid, but “despite the story’s various missteps and mishaps, it succeeds in certain important respects, and it is this tension in which this book is most interested.”

The first chapter, “One Painstaking Layer at a Time”, looks at the first two versions of the storyline, both of which made better sense, and the changes made to the script at the last moment. He makes the point that the armour worn by Morgaine and her knights should have been obviously high-tech, as described in the script, and the decision to just use ordinary armour instead had a serious impact on the quality of the story as broadcast.

The second chapter, “Daleks, Master-Plans”, starts by comparing and contrasting Battlefield with Remembrance of the Daleks, and then looks at the Cartmel Master Plan, and the (slim) possibility that Bambera might have returned in future seasons if Old Who had not been cancelled.

The second paragraph of the third chapter, “This Thing About King Arthur”, is:

One method is to construct a science-fiction story with parallels to a myth – more often than not a classical myth – and usually to flag the fact in dialogue. This is the approach taken to, for instance, the myths of Jason and the Golden Fleece in Underworld (1978), the Minotaur in The Horns of Nimon (1979-80) and the Minotaur again in The God Complex (2011). Another is to suggest that elements of various mythologies are real, but explicable through science fiction tropes, generally ancient visitations by aliens – the view taken of the Titan Kronos (and the Minotaur again) in The Time Monster (1972), the Egyptian god Set in Pyramids of Mars (1975), and the apocalypse-heralding Norse monster Fenrir in The Curse of Fenric. (This is also a common approach to invented alien religions, for instance in The Face of Evil (1977) and Planet of Fire (1984).) A third variant consists of stories where, rather than inspiring a myth, the alien takes advantage of an existing one to deceive the superstitious locals. In the earliest example of this, The Myth Makers (1965), the alien masquerading as Zeus is the Doctor himself; a more recent one is the Mire warlord who impersonates Odin in The Girl Who Died (2015).

The chapter looks at sources for Arthuriana: Roger Lancelyn Green, Boorman’s Excalibur, The Mists of Avalon, the comic series Camelot 3000 and the BBC series Knights of God which starred Patrick Troughton but was not shown until after he had died. (I am surprised not to see T.H. White or Monty Python on that list.)

The fourth chapter, “The Legendary Arthur, Yes”, looks in detail at the Arthurian roots of various characters and concepts in Battlefield, running into problems with Bambera who is not a brilliant match for Guinevere. This chapter alone takes up a quarter of the book. I think this is trying a little too hard.

The fifth chapter, “Builder of Worlds”, points out that Battlefield is set not in 1989 when broadcast but in an unspecified near future where the UK has a king and various other things have happened. (God be with the days when you could get a vodka and coke, a lemonade and a glass of water for much less than a fiver.)

The sixth chapter, “Is This War?”, examines the story’s depiction of the military and the Doctor’s relationship with them, and the concepts of “honour” and “shame”, the latter of which is used euphemistically by Bambera as a swear word.

The seventh chapter, “Sufficiently Advanced Magic”, points out that the 1988 and 1989 stories had more overtly magical content, and that Morgaine’s witchcraft is in the end her undoing.

The eighth chapter, “Britishness, and Other Identities”, looks at how the story’s heterogenous concept of Britishness is developed further in Aaronovitch’s (excellent) Rivers of London books, and also looks at just why that last scene is so bad.

The ninth chapter, “It’s Only a Trap”, comes back to the Bambera/Guinevere question, and also looks at how future incarnations of the Doctor might appear in the current Doctor’s story. As noted above, Platt’s future Doctor in the novelisation has red hair.

In the conclusion, Purser-Hallard rather disarmingly confesses that “for many years – 16, to be precise – [Battlefield] was my favourite story.” (Sixteen years from 1989 takes us to the dawn of New Who.) I’m really charmed that he managed to resist the temptation to go full-on apologetic for a youthful enthusiasm, and instead provided a thoughtful analysis.

But I still wonder about a few things, notably, why are the direction and the music so awful? It’s a book that answers a lot of questions, but not all of them are the ones I would have asked.

Anyway, 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 Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Kerblam! (37)

Horror of Fang Rock, by Matthew Guerrieri (and Terrance Dicks)

It’s Gallifrey One this weekend, and I’m travelling to Los Angeles today; the next few reviews here will accordingly be of my recent Doctor Who reading, starting with an old favourite seen through new eyes.

I remember vividly watching Horror of Fang Rock when it was first broadcast, kicking off the 1977-78 season of Doctor Who, keeping us entranced for the four weeks that it was on. I really enjoyed it then. On rewatching in 2008, I wrote:

Horror of Fang Rock is a very bleak and horrific story. Indeed, it made me reflect that for all his cuddly public personality, Terrance Dicks’ actual writing is often rooted in pretty horrific stuff – vampires, Frankenstein, King Kong, and his first ever story, co-written with Malcolm Hulke, was The War Games which surely has the bleakest ending of any classic Who.

This is the one with the Rutan, the electrical alien foe of the Sontarans which can change shape and indeed does so as it picks off the inhabitants of the light-house one by one. There is one actor of dubious talents, but fortunately his character is the first to die and the others all give it their best.

This is the last story in which we just have the Doctor/Leela Tardis crew, and it’s worth pausing to reflect that this was surely one of the greatest ever combinations, with a consistent run of four good stories (Face of Evil, Robots of Death, Talons of Weng-Chiang and this one). Leela could so easily have been a one-joke character, but in Louise Jameson’s portrayal she is completely credible, always earthed in her own identity, able to clash and spark with the Doctor, playing the dramatic role of a companion as the one who gets things explained to her not because she is stupid but because she is different. She is the one companion who we see the Doctor trying to change and educate, and that somehow makes it all work much better. After watching the Troughton stories over the last year or so I decided I was a huge fan of Wendy Padbury’s Zoe; but now I see things in Leela that passed me by as a ten-year-old. (Meaning the integrity of her performance, of course.)

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

Horror of Fang Rock is a strong start to Season 15, with Terrance Dicks proving once again that he can actually write. Sure, it’s a base-under-siege story; but it’s one of the better ones, with everyone being killed off except our crew in the end.

It is a particularly good story for Leela, who is utterly exasperated by the screamy Adelaide (she does a brilliant eye-roll when Adelaide faints) and stuns the other Edwardians with her relaxed attitude to death; it makes her horror when Reuben-the-Rutan is unharmed by her knife all the more striking. It’s a bit un-Doctorish to wipe out the entire Rutan mothership as they land, but gives a satisfying bang at the end of the story.

I stand by all of that. A few more things struck me this time. We never actually find out the details of Palmerdale’s nefarious plan, except that it’s clearly indicated that it is dishonorable, and it’s also clearly indicated that Adelaide is more than a secretary. There’s an interesting untold story there. Also, the music is very good. Also, unfortunately, the Rutan is not all that well realised, a weak point in what is otherwise a strong story. Still, I realliy enjoyed rewatching it.

For those of us in the Worldcon community, one of the Doctor’s lines in particular has a strong resonance:

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

‘That’s what happened, according to the Doctor. Massive electric shock, he said.’

When I reread it in 2008, I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock is a case of Terrance Dicks adapting one of his own TV scripts, which gives him even more than his usual degree of confidence with the material, and he uses the opportunity to fill out the Edwardian background of the story rather satisfactorily.

I don’t completely stand by that judgement now. One point where the novelisation is consistently out of step with the TV version is that the Doctor is cheerful, funny and charming, whereas Tom Baker’s portrayal on screen is moody and Olympian. Baker apparently did not like Dicks’ script, and his bad mood carries over into his performance, but it makes it all the more watchable; this is not a funny story and a funny Doctor would have been jarring. Perhaps this is Dicks, again belying his cuddly reputation, getting obscure revenge on Baker. If you want to judge for yourself, you can get it here.

I keep on saying this about the books in this series, but with occasional exceptions it keeps being true: Matthew Guerreri’s Black Archive monograph is really good, taking us deep into the roots of the story. I have two minor complaints, and I’ll mention the first now: I wish it had been longer.

A prologue references the infamous Max Headroom incident of 1987, which Guerreri witnessed at first hand, and reflects on the manifestations of intrusion and discontinuity in the story. Like all of the chapters, it is prefaced with a literary quotation.

The first of four long chapters, dubbed “Part 1”, has the title “Technology and Character”. It starts with Robert Louis Stevenson’s credentials in lighthouse construction, goes on to E.G. Jerrome’s 1966 Lighthouses, Lightships and Buoys, compares the lighthouse crew and the production team to the Three Body Problem, looks at Humphrey Davy and Michael Faraday’s contributions to lighthouse lamps, examines diamonds as a focus, explains Marconi, comes back to Robert Louis Stevenson on island life, and finishes on the timing of the Doctor’s presence on Fang Rock.

“Part 2: Time and Class” starts with Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse, quotes John Stuart Mill and Ronald Coase on lighthouse economics, ponders the fate of Palmerdale’s sailors and Skinsale’s ethics, returns to Virginia Woolf and her father Leslie Stephen and the letters Q and R, sticks with Woolf’s take on Einstein and her Orlando, detours a little to Roger Fry and the obscure late nineteenth century writer Grant Allen, and briefly considers the diamond again.

The second paragraph of “Part 3: Time and Terror” is:

In 1847, after taking up residence in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, mansion that had been George Washington’s headquarters during the war’s Boston campaign, Longfellow returned to Portland. He took a holiday at the Verandah, a new hotel that would help create Maine’s reputation as a vacation playground for well-off New Englanders. During that sojourn, the poet did not visit the Portland Head Light, but he did see the ‘Two Lights,’ twin towers at the southern end of Cape Elizabeth. Longfellow climbed to the top of the western tower to take in the views.

It starts with Longfellow’s poem, “The Lighthouse”, looks at the Rutan’s roots in Lovecraft and Verne, goes in detail into Lovecraft’s “The White Ship” and “The Color Out of Space”, considers why green should be so awful anyway, and briefly reflects on the Flannan Isles.

“Part 4: Fact and Fiction” looks in detail at Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera The Lighthouse, considers The War of the Worlds, reminds us about Dudley Simpson’s music, mentions the Tarot, looks at William Wilfred Gibson’s poem “Flannan Isle” which is (mis)quotred by the Doctor at the end, and finishes with a note about narrative.

A brief epilogue considers the story about a lighthouse left unfinished by Edgar Allan Poe at the time of his mysterious death.

There’s a lot here, and it expanded my list of books that I want to read (or re-read) much more than I really need right now. You can get it here.

My only other complaint, and it’s a small one, is that I’d have liked to see a nod to the Andy Frankham-Allen novel in the Lethbridge-Stewart sequence, Beast of Fang Rock, which is well worth a look (and you can get it here).

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Kerblam! (37)

At The Edge Of The World, by Lord Dunsany

Second paragraph of third story (“Mlideen”):

All in the Middle City stood the Temples of the city’s priests, and hither came all the people of Mlideen to bring them gifts, and there it was the wont of the City’s priests to carve them gods for Mlideen. For in a room apart in the Temple of Eld in the midst of the temples that stood in the Middle City of Mlideen there lay a book called the Book of Beautiful Devices, writ in a language that no man may read and writ long ago, telling how a man may make for himself gods that shall neither rage nor seek revenge against a little people. And ever the priests came forth from reading in the Book of Beautiful Devices and ever they sought to make benignant gods, and all the gods that they made were different from each other, only their eyes turned all upon Mlideen.

I did a lot of work on Lord Dunsany’s uncle, Sir Horace Plunkett, for my PhD research many years ago, but have only limited familiarity with the nephew’s copious output of fantasy writing. (I read The Gods of Pegāna ten years ago.) This is a selection of his short fiction assembled in 1970 by Lin Carter, as part of his ongoing efforts to cash in on the success of The Lord of the Rings, with some interesting biographical detail of how and when each set of stories was written.

If you’ve read one Dunsany story, to be honest, you’ve read them all. The descriptions are good and the use of language very effective. But nothing very much happens; there are few surprises or moments of tension, and no memorable characters or grand themes beyond exalted whimsy. That was my prejudice before reading the collection, and I’m sorry to say that it was confirmed.

Dunsany was clearly an influence on both H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien, and thus on all of their successors, but I think that both were better writers. Dunsany evokes your sensawunda, and makes you feel that there is a magical world just around the corner, out of sight; but both Lovecraft and Tolkien did the same and added a lot more depth and structure to their respective mythologies. With Dunsany, you feel that he is just telling you another story; Lovecraft and Tolkien take you into the depths of their detailed imaginary worlds. Lovecraft also adds horror, and Tolkien moral courage, to give extra dimensionality to the narrative.

Don’t get me wrong, Dunsany is a good writer, but he paved the way for better. (See also, “Lord Dunsany: The Geography of the Gods”, by Vernon Hyles, in More Real Than Reality: The Fantastic in Irish Literature and the Arts, edited by Donald E. Morse and Csilla Bertha.)

You can get this collection here. This was my top unread book acquired in 2016; next on that pile is The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus Du Sautoy.

Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol

Second paragraph of third chapter:

President Trump and his allies prepared their own fake slates of electoral college electors in seven States that President Trump lost: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And on December 14, 2020—the date when true, certified electors were meeting to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who had won the popular vote in each of those States—these fake electors also met, ostensibly casting electoral votes for President Trump, the candidate who had lost.

Like the rest of you, I was utterly appalled by the extreme right wing attack on the Capitol on 6 January 2021, a direct attempt to overturn the 2020 election result by violence. What was not clear on the evening, but has now been made very clear by the labours of the Select Committee set up by the House of Representatives to look into the events, is the extent to which this was a part of a premeditated and criminal plan by Trump to illegally remain in power.

The evidence is clear. Most of those who testified to the Select Committee were Republicans, a number of them working directly for Trump in the White House. I myself said on the record to Bloomberg News, the day after the election, that there was little chance of the election result being overturned in the Supreme Court because there was no case. Eight leading conservative American lawyers have reported clearly and succinctly on the justified failure of all of Trump’s legal challenges. Nobody who has looked into it can seriously maintain, in good faith, that there is any doubt about the legitimacy of Biden’s win in the election.

Bad faith is a different matter, and the Report lays out how Trump cast aside the sensible lawyers and started to take advice from those who told him what he wanted to hear, culminating in the massive effort on 6 January to intimidate Vice-President Mike Pence into breaking the law and disqualifying enough valid votes for Biden to enable Trump to remain in office. I must admit that Pence comes out of it rather well, sticking to his position even when the mob came within a few metres of the office were he was being protected.

The Republican National Committee does not come out looking as good. They supported Trump’s hopeless legal challenges to the election results in the states, and also legitimised his shameless and aggressive personal bullying towards election workers – some senior state officials, some just ordinary folks who happened to attract the president’s ire. They also benefited from the fraudulent fund-raising to “Stop the Steal”, which continued long after the result was beyond any doubt. It is sickening that the mayhem and deaths of 6 January were instrumentalised as a marketing tool.

The National Guard also comes out looking bad. Although there had been internal discussion of how to use them in support of public order, delays in the command chain meant that by the time they got authorisation to assist the hard-pressed police, the riot was over because the President had called it off. There are also constitutional ambiguities about Trump’s role as commander-in-chief, but the report is clear that this was not the problem on the day.

But it all comes back to Trump. There is no smoking gun demonstrating that he had operational command and control over the mob. But there is plenty of evidence that they thought they were taking orders from him. For three hours they rampaged through the Capitol while friends, allies and family begged Trump to speak out against the violence; and as soon as he told them to disperse and go home, they did. The evidence from White House staffers who were there on the day is particularly chilling.

Anyone who defends Trump, let alone the rioters, over 6 January 2021 is not worth listening to. He decided that he did not like the election results; he desperately looked for legal ways to overturn the vote, and did not find any; and he attempted to use mob violence to cling to power. He is not fit for office, and nor is anyone who supports him.

You can get the report and supporting documents here (here’s the link for the report itself).

The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo; The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and an unexpected family connection

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo:

When I mentioned Gatsby in Daisy’s own house, in front of her own husband, there was nothing in my mind that connected him with Lieutenant Jay Gatsby. That man was fresh out of Camp Taylor with a commission purchased with the very last of his money from Dan Cody and only one pair of decent shoes. The eager young lieutenant had a wondering hungry eye, and the beautiful man in the lavender suit pin-striped in gray had obviously never been hungry a day in his life.

I’m more than a little dubious about the Hugo Award for Best Editor, Long Form. It seems to me that most Hugo voters, as readers, are not well placed to judge the extent and value of an editor’s contribution; if a nominee happens to have edited a lot of good books last year, is that luck or judgement? Be that as it may, last year’s Hugo packet included this as part of the credentials for Ruoxi Chen, who went on to (relatively narrowly) win the award; I didn’t read it then but I have read it now.

Folks, it is a real treat. I had no idea. It’s a re-telling of The Great Gatsby from the point of view of Jordan Parker, the #2 female character in the original, just as the original story is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, who is definitely the #2 male character in the story. But it’s not quite Gatsby as we know it. Jordan and Daisy are still from Lousiville, Kentucky, but Jordan is an adoptee from Vietnam. Everyone (well, every main character) is queer and polyamorous. And magic works; not everyone can do it, but Jordan can, critically altering some of the key moments in the book.

I don’t know Gatsby well, but I found myself compelled to have it to hand to read in parallel with The Chosen and the Beautiful to enjoy even more what Vo has done with such a classic text. The overall arc is the same – it’s almost surprising how little the emotional dynamics are affected once you know for sure that everyone is shagging, rather than merely suspecting it – but it’s very pleasing, very moving and very nicely done. If you didn’t save it from the Hugo packet last year, you can get it here.

I went back and reread The Great Gatsby, properly as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

When I first read it in 2004, I wrote

[A] very good short novel, with the setting of 1920s New York and Long Island vividly described, including barely surreptitious widespread use of alcohol and a surprising amount of promiscuity, but overlying this a much more interesting story of personal aspiration. Strongly recommended.

ObBalkans: Gatsby had a war medal awarded to him by the King of Montenegro

I enjoyed it again. It is very digestible, and the emotional arcs of young(-ish) people hurtling into a new age are tremendously convincing. You can get it here.

Since reading it first time around, I’ve been getting acquainted with my American grandmother’s early life; she was three years younger than Fitzgerald, and so almost exactly the same age as the fictional Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Parker. In fact Fitzgerald knew and corresponded with my grandmother’s step-brother, Van Wyck Brooks, though they were on somewhat different literary wavelengths, and Edmund Wilson even wrote an imaginary conversation between them for The New Republic in 1924, the year before Gatsby was published..

Browsing Fitzgerald’s biography, I was struck by a familiar chord in a mention of his colonial-era ancestors in Maryland. (He himself was born in St Paul, Minnesota and was always conscious of his Mid-Western origins.) A little digging, and I worked out that we were in fact fifth cousins three times removed, both of us descended from Philip Key (1696-1764), who emigrated from London around 1720, and his first wife Susanna Gardiner (1705-1742) whose ancestors had been in Maryland since the 1630s. F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald; he was named after the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, who was his second cousin three times removed and my second cousin six times removed – we are all descended from different sons of Philip and Susanna.

I doubt that either my grandmother or her step-brother, let alone Fitzgerald, were aware of the genealogical connection. According to his daughter, Fitzgerald was not very interested in his Maryland ancestry. On our side, the link was through my great-grandmother, who had died when my grandmother was six, before my great-grandfather married Van Wyck Brooks’ mother (who had also been widowed). My grandmother was brought up to a certain extent by her dead mother’s sisters, who would certainly not have approved of Gatsby (either the character or the book) and anyway she lived in Europe and Asia for most of her adult life.

But sometimes it’s a small world, isn’t it?

The Chosen and the Beautiful was my top unread book by a writer of colour. Next on that list is The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw.

Rise of the Dominator, by Robert Mammone

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Ruth Winters looked up from reading a report; her lips pressed tightly together, her eyes narrowed.

Another in the sequence of Lethbridge-Stewart novels where the Brigadier and two of his friends have had their consciousnesses sent wandering back along their timeline. This was not one of the better ones. A surviving Dominator from earlier in the series is mixed up with organised crime and Nazis in 1973 London, while the events of The Silurians and Ambassadors of Death take place elsewhere. Really annoyed me by misspelling a couple of German names – Bormann becomes “Boorman”, the Ahnenerbe becomes the “Annenerbe”; I think putting Nazis into a 1970s spinoff Doctor Who story is lazy anyway, but not getting the German words right is positively indolent. Anyway, you can get it here, and I look forward to the end of this rather disappointing subsequence in what has generally been a good series.