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.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness

Opening of Part Three:

The sound of water. Light up on Boa Island. Craig rests, smoking. Pyper enters.
Craig: Well?
Pyper: Good. Good place.
Craig: I hoped you’d like it.
Pyper: You rowed out here every day?
Craig: When I had the chance and I wanted to be on my island.
Pyper: Your island?
Craig: Sorry. Boa Island. I stand corrected. I meant when I wanted to be on my own.
Pyper: Nobody ever comes here?
Craig: Very few.
Pyper: Strange.
Craig: This place? Yes.
Pyper: The place is definitely strange, but strange too, people shouldn’t come.
Craig: Why should they come here?
Pyper: The carvings.
Craig: What are they?
Pyper: Signs.

This play won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize in 1986, and I was lucky enough to see it thirty years later, at the Abbey Theatre for the 2016 production commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Reading the script now can’t really do justice to the memory of the theatre production, which starred Donal Gallery as Pyper, and crucially used the space of the stage to make the story come alive.

It’s a reflection on eight soldiers recruited to the Ulster Division during the First World War, exploring their understanding of the universe, life, love and loyalty. The narrative is bookended by Pyper in old age reflecting on how he survived and his friends did not (so the fact that seven of the eight die is signalled early on).

I find the third act the most effective, the eight characters back home on leave and split into four pairs, two on Boa island, two at a church, two at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, and two at the Field where Orange marches finish (which historically was at Finaghy, close to where I grew up, though I do not know if that was the case in 1915 or 1916). It gives the men a chance to explain themselves to each other, a sympathetic but informed audience.

By the lakeside in Fermanagh, Pyper and Craig make love, which must have been rather shocking in 1985 and was still a bit unexpected in 2016. (Also the weather must have been very good that day.) All of the characters reflect on the place of Ulster in Ireland, in Britainm in Europe and in the empire. There are some very good lines:

Old Pyper: Those I belonged to, those I have not forgotten, the irreplaceable ones, they kept their nerve, and they died. I survived. No, survival was not my lot. Darkness, for eternity, is not survival.

McIlwaine: The whole of Ulster will be lost. We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

Younger Pyper: I have seen horror
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: They kept their nerve and they died.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: There would be and there will be, no surrender.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: The house has grown cold, the province has grown lonely.
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: You’ll always guard Ulster.
Elder Pyper: Ulster.
Younger Pyper: Save it
Elder Pyper: Ulster
Younger Pyper: The temple of the Lord is ransacked.
Elder Pyper: Ulster.
(Pyper reaches toward himself)
Younger Pyper: Dance in this deserted temple of the Lord.
Elder Pyper: Dance
(Darkness)

You can get it here.

This was the non-sf fiction book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves. Next in that pile is The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman, by Flann O’Brien, but it will have to wait until I have finished my 2016 books.

Ewart-Biggs Prize winners: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness | From A Clear Blue Sky: Surviving the Mountbatten Bomb, by Timothy Knatchbull | Setting the Truth Free: The Inside Story of the Bloody Sunday Campaign, by Julieann Campbell | The Republic: The Fight for Irish Independence, 1918-1923, by Charles Townshend | The Whole and Rain-Domed Universe, by Colette Bryce | The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii, by James Moran

When the TV story The Fires of Pompeii was first shown in 2008, I wrote:

I must have been one of the few kids of my generation who voluntarily did Latin O-level. There were two of us in the class; our teacher was from Achill Island, and had studied classics in Galway through the medium of Irish (which she also taught at our school). However we used the Ecce Romani books, not the Cambridge Latin Course, so missed out on that particular set of in-jokes.

But I loved the Doctor’s shifty acknowledgement of responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, and my Big Finish sympathies were satisfied with the fact that there was no explicit contradiction with what Seven and Mel were up to on the other side of town. I also liked the new take on the Tardis translation effect – “Look you!” – and the way in which the Doctor accepts responsibility for causing the eruption. There was that one moment reminiscent of the “You lucky bastard!” scene from Life of Brian, and I am aware that volcanoes on the whole do not contain such conveniently located corridors, but I was willing to take the ride.

It was also one of the lockdown rewatches organised by Emily Cook (who deserves a medal from the wider Who community).

Also during the 2020 lockdown, James Moran wrote a webcast sequel with descendants of the Pompeiians in today’s Britain:

It was great fun to rewatch it for this post, especially now that we know we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Karen Gillan again. (Karen Gillan is the first of the soothsayers to appear, in an episode filmed ten weeks before her 20th birthday.) The Tenth Doctor / Donna dynamic is fantastic – they are just friends, but very good friends even though this is only their third adventure together.

(Though Anne said, after I showed her an episode of Galaxy Four soon after rewatching The Fires of Pompeii, “Wasn’t it great when they didn’t feel that they had to emote all the time?”)

The second paragraph of the third chapter of James Moran’s novelisation is:

The villa was a big, open-plan design, with a large atrium and living area leading off to smaller alcoves. Four large hypocaust grilles in the floor constantly pumped out thick gusts of hot steam. There were vases, plants, busts, statues and gaudy chunks of decorative marble everywhere. Caecilius was a man who liked art, the fancier the better. But there was something about this blue box that intrigued him more than anything. He’d always admired modern art, especially the way it was occasionally hard to tell what was actually art and what was just a weird lump of material. It was a matter of will, sometimes. If you said something was art, and said it loudly enough, people would believe it, even if it looked like a child had made it; especially so in some cases. Plenty of modern art was undeniably beautiful, of course, but it was all subjective in the end. As long as you liked something, and it gave you pleasure, then it was art, and nobody could tell you otherwise.

This is great fun, with the episode script faithfully delivered to the page and more detail added, including that Caecilius and Metella’s son Quintus is gay and the following jewel about Donna’s life:

In the Temple of Sibyl, Donna was not in a good mood. It was fair to say this was probably the worst mood she’d been in all year.

And she’d had a pretty spectacularly bad few months, even before reconnecting with the Doctor. In any other year, being hunted down by a lunatic alien nanny and lumps of living fat would have been the worst thing ever – but this year, that barely scraped the top five. There was the disastrous night out chasing a taxi driver she thought was an alien in disguise, which resulted in her online taxi app somehow dropping her passenger rating to below zero. That was quite an achievement; the company actually sent her a certificate. Cancelled her account, of course, but they were still impressed. Then there was the Bad Haircut Incident of February, which her friends and family were ordered to NEVER mention again, even though it had grown out since and she had deleted all photos of the offending barnet. And then there was the speed-dating evening her mum had forced her to go on, during which she had slapped three men, punched two, and been barred from an entire street. And those were just the top three bad things to happen. There were so many others she wished she could forget, too, including the event everyone simply referred to in hushed tones as KebabGate.

But none of them had ended with her tied to a sacrificial altar, in a creepy secret temple, with some sort of spooky druids standing around chanting and waving knives. So this pipped them all to the top spot. By some considerable distance. She just hoped she would live to tell the tale.

I complimented the author on this and he was good enough to reply.

It’s exactly what you want from a novelisation – captures the fun of the original TV episode and adds a bit more characterisation and background. (Except for the Pyroviles.) You can get it here.

Diary of a Witchcraft Shop 2, by Trevor Jones and Liz Williams

Second paragraph of third month (June):

Desperately trying to get some study done and the puppy has learnt to bark at everything – and she has just pulled the wireless router off the shelf…

I have not read the first volume of this, but I don’t think it matters; Trevor and Liz chronicle the daily circumstances of life running an occult shop in Glastonbury, along with Liz’s wider engagement in science fiction activism – the book covers her time as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and participation in various conventions and other meetings, with lots of appearances from people who I know. There are a lot of interesting characters and funny moments in their lives, as you might expect from Glastonbury, and that includes their dogs. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Representing Europeans, by Richard Rose.

Sin Eaters, by Cavan Scott, Adriana Melo, Cris Bolson and Marco Lesko

Second frame of third issue:

Last in the series of Ninth Doctor comics from Titan, this has the Doctor dealing with a creature constructed from his id, a bit of Jack’s back story, Rose called on to save the day and only a small role for the promising UNIT companion Tara. There’s also a bit of commentary on social media. I thought the first story would have made a great TV episode if there had been a second Ninth Doctor series, and enjoyed the rest though it was a bit uneven in places. You can get it here.

Next up in this sequence: Revolutions of Terror, by Nick Abadzis et al.

January books

I have logged 45 books this month, my second highest ever monthly total since I started keeping track in November 2003. A lot of them were very short; a lot were Clarke submissions that I have put aside after fifty or a hundred pages and will get back to some time; also as the new year dawned I had almost finished several books which automatically boosted the total. I’ve also had a high page count, not quite the highest ever but I think in the top five since November 2003. I doubt if the whole year will be like this, but there’s an awfully large pile of Clarke submissions to get through…

Non-fiction 9
God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt
Diary of a Witchcraft Shop 2, by Trevor Jones and Liz Williams
Final Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol
Horror of Fang Rock, by Matthew Guerrieri
Battlefield, by Philip Purser-Hallard
The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams
Juggle and Hide, by Sharon van Ivan
Representing Europeans, by Richard Rose
Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland

Non-genre 2
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
λ2 (did not finish)

Plays 1
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness

Poetry 2
Metamorphoses, by Ovid tr. Stephanie McCarter
Tales from Ovid, by Ted Hughes

SF 22
γ2
Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest
All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva
“The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold
δ2
ε2 (did not finish)
ζ2
η2 (did not finish)
θ2 (did not finish)
The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo
At The Edge Of The World, by Lord Dunsany
ι2
κ2
Death Draws Five, by John J. Miller
μ2
ν2
ξ2 (did not finish)
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugrešić
ο2
The Perfect Assassin, by K.A. Doore
π2 (did not finish)
The World Set Free: A Fantasia of the Future, by H.G. Wells

Doctor Who 5
Doctor Who: Galaxy Four, by William Emms
Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii, by James Moran
Rise of the Dominator, by Robert Mammone
Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who: Battlefield, by Marc Platt

Comics 4
Alternating Current, by Jody Houser et al.
Sin Eaters, by Cavan Scott, Adriana Melo, Cris Bolson and Marco Lesko
Neptune – Épisode 1 by Leo
Neptune – Épisode 2 by Leo

9,900 pages
17/45 by non-male writers (Williams, Cheney/Lofgren/Murphy/Luria, “Williams”, van Ivan, λ2, McCarter, Sachdeva, Bujold, δ2, ε2, η2, Vo, ι2, Ugrešić, Doore, Houser et al, Melo)
5/45 by a non-white writer (Thompson/Aguilar/Murphy, λ2, γ2, Sachdeva, Vo)
416 books currently tagged “unread”, 21 more than last month, with more Clarke Award submissions to come…

Reading now
ρ2
The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life, by Marcus Du Sautoy

Coming soon (perhaps)
Agent Provocateur, by Gary Russell et al
Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light, by Rona Munro
Lucy Wilson & the Bledoe Cadets, by Tim Gambrell
Doctor Who: Timelash, by Glen McCoy
Timelash, by Phil Pascoe
Listen, by Dewi Small
Wild Cards: Deuces Down, ed. John Jos. Miller
Peculiar Lives, by Philip Purser-Hallard
Elizabeth I and Ireland, ed. Brendan Kane and Valerie McGowan-Doyle
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
Madam Secretary, by Madeleine Albright
Tales from Planet Earth, by Arthur C Clarke
The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel
The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw
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
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
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
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity, by Rupert Shortt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Howlers aside, the broader ramifications are especially worthy of note. It is not just scientists such as Dawkins, but also many philosophers (Richard Rorty being a notable example) who fail to see that secular humanism is not a neutral standpoint. It is an alternative metaphysical vision revolving around what a more searching thinker, Charles Taylor, has called ‘images of power, or untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession’.¹  We will return to this vision and its very mixed legacy more than once.
¹ Cited in Christopher J. Insole, The Realist Hope: A Critique of Anti-Realist Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Ashgate, 2006), p. 166.

One of the religion books that I have logged on my LibraryThing catalogue, even though it’s really Anne’s. I found it a lot more to my taste than most Christian apologetic works; Shortt is arguing only that there should be space in public and private for an honest appreciation of spirituality and belief, and that the New Atheists completely and deliberately miss the point. There’s a quote from Rowan Williams referencing Doctor Who. The weakest part of the (mercifully short) book is when he gets into the specifics of Christian belief, as opposed to others, but as a general defence of religion as a concept, I felt it went to a lot of the places where I find my own sympathies engaged. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book on my shelves acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is The Karmic Curve, by Mary I. Williams.

Alternating Current, by Jody Houser, Roberta Ingranata and Enrica Eren Angiolini

Second frame of third issue:

I’ve seen some rather negative reviews of this online, but I really enjoyed it – another story of the Tenth and Thirteenth Doctors coming together, with a parallel timeline where Rose Tyler is leading human resistance to the Sea Devils, and also a return to the more recent story Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror. Houser catches a lovely dynamic between the two Doctors, in general it’s well realised by the artists, and I thought it was a lot of fun. You can get it here.

This was my top unread comic in English. Next on that pile is The Secret to Superhuman Strength, by Alison Bechdel.

“The Mountains of Mourning” by Lois McMaster Bujold

Second paragraph of third section:

The interior of the pavilion was shady and cool after the glare outside. It was furnished with comfortable old chairs and tables, one of which bore the remains of a noble breakfast—Miles mentally marked two lonely-looking oil cakes on a crumb-scattered tray as his own. Miles’s mother, lingering over her cup, smiled across the table at him.

Next in my sequence of joint Hugo and Nebula winners, this is an old favourite of mine. If you don’t know Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, I urge you to give it a try. Most of the stories are about Miles, a nobleman from a conservative planetary empire which is only just re-engaging with the rest of the galaxy and with modernisation, who suffers from restricted growth and brittle bones in a society where disability is abhorred.

In “The Mountains of Mourning”, one of the earlier stories in the sequence, Miles investigates and judges a case of infanticide in the impoverished back-country of his ancestral fiefdom. It’s about change to an ancient way of living, and poisonous family dynamics, and about disability in society. Every character is credibly, in some cases agonisingly, drawn. I think I first read it when I was getting to grips with my own family’s situation, and it has a special place in my heart for that reason. I think also it would be a very good place to start your journey into the Vorkosigan saga. You can get it here and here as a standalone, and here as part of a larger collection.

I’d also note that apart from the “truth drug” which Miles and his henchmen use to discover the identity of the murderer, the story could be perfectly well set in other times and places, with no sfnal elements at all.

It is interesting that the cover by Alan Gutierrez for the original publication in the May 1989 Analog, and for the later Arc Manor publication (artist not known to me), both concentrate on Miles as the focal point; whereas Ron Miller’s cover for Bujold’s own version concentrates on the empty cradle.

Also on both Hugo and Nebula ballots for Best Novella were “Tiny Tango”, by Judith Moffett, and “A Touch of Lavender”, by Megan Lindholm. The other Hugo finalists were The Father of Stones, by Lucius Shepard, and “Time-Out”, by Connie Willis. The other Nebula finalists were A Dozen Tough Jobs, by Howard Waldrop; “Great Work of Time”, by John Crowley; and “Marîd Changes His Mind”, by George Alec Effinger. I can’t recall having read any of them.

The Hugo for Best Novel that year went to Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, and the Nebula to The Healer’s War, by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another”, by Robert Silverberg, and the Nebula to “At the Rialto”, by Connie Willis. The Hugo for Best Short Story went to “Boobs”, by the late Suzy McKee Charnas, and the Nebula to “Ripples in the Dirac Sea”, by Geoffrey A. Landis. And the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The following year there were two joint winners of both Hugo and Nebula, “Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson and “The Hemingway Hoax” by Joe Haldeman, so I’ll get to them next.

All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva

Second paragraph of third story (“Logging Lake”):

He went to stand beside Terri, who was bent over a park map, nodding her head seriously as a ranger drew his finger along various possible routes.

I don’t know how I picked this up, but I am very glad that I did. These are nine tremendously varied and uniformly excellent stories. There’s John Milton, there’s a man with glass in his lungs, there’s a mermaid, there’s a girl who vanishes; more than half of them are on the sff side of the divide, and all of them are pretty magical. I usually find it difficult to write up short fiction collections, and this is no exception, but I really recommend it. You can get it here.

This waas my top unread book by a writer of colour. Next on that pile is The Chosen and the Beautiful, by Nghi Vo.

Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest

Second paragraph of third section:

Working methodically, by midday I had filled two haversacks with canned food and had stolen for future barter three road maps from abandoned cars. I did not see the other man, Rafiq, again during the morning.

This was one of Christopher Priest’s first books, published over half a century ago in 1972, depicting a near-future Britain with a populist right-wing government, over-run with refugees from African conflicts, and the consequent disintegration of the social order. It’s told through the viewpoint of Alan Whitman (“White man”?) who is frankly unpleasant; he cheats on his wife and on his travelling companions, not for the sake of any grand strategy but because he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the book was published, the topic of migration and refugee flows has become considerably more toxic than it was then. Priest is clear that the two things he had in mind while writing were the early days of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which saw the biggest forced population movement in Western Europe since the second world war, and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, many of whom came (and as it turned out integrated well) to the UK. Those were different times, and for us it’s impossible to read the book now outside the context of the 2015 migration crisis and the poisonous and dishonest rhetoric of recent years.

It’s not what Priest was getting at; he was looking at the disintegration of his own society under the shock of the future, a sort of It Can’t Happen Here, and mapping the disintegration of his protagonist’s household and family onto this social crisis. His target is not the refugees but the corrupt right-wing government that presides over the chaos. The narrative itself is disjointed, three different timelines (as a fugue has three different themes) jumping between several different phases of the crisis as things get worse.

I read this as a teenager and wondered how it would hold up. It’s all grimly credible from a 1971 viewpoint, but of course the world has moved on, and Priest revised the novel in 2011 to smoothe some of the parts that had aged less well. This is not one of his better known books – tenth on LibraryThing, fourteenth on Goodreads – but it was an interesting return. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016 (kindly given to me by the author, who signed it for me). Next on that pile is At the Edge of the World, by Lord Dunsany.

Metamorphoses, by Publius Ovidius Naso, translated by Stephanie McCarter; and Tales from Ovid, translated by Ted Hughes

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault

My normal practice is to give you the second paragraph of the third chapter of the books I read. Here there is a problem because the second paragraph of Liber III of the Metamorphoses is a bit meaningless out of context, and also not translated by Hughes; whereas the second paragraph of the third of Hughes’ extracts from Ovid is an interpolation by him with no original Latin text to compare it to. So instead, here is the third paragraph of Liber I, starting with the original and the McCarter translation, part of the passage on the Creation:

Sic ubi dispositam quisquis fuit ille deorum
congeriem secuit sectamque in membra coegit,
principio terram, ne non aequalis ab omni
parte foret, magni speciem glomeravit in orbis.
tum freta diffundi rapidisque tumescere ventis
iussit et ambitae circumdare litora terrae;
addidit et fontes et stagna inmensa lacusque
fluminaque obliquis cinxit declivia ripis,
quae, diversa locis, partim sorbentur ab ipsa,
in mare perveniunt partim campoque recepta
liberioris aquae pro ripis litora pulsant.
iussit et extendi campos, subsidere valles,
fronde tegi silvas, lapidosos surgere montes,
utque duae dextra caelum totidemque sinistra
parte secant zonae, quinta est ardentior illis,
sic onus inclusum numero distinxit eodem
cura dei, totidemque plagae tellure premuntur.
quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu;
nix tegit alta duas; totidem inter utramque locavit
temperiemque dedit mixta cum frigore flamma.
When he (whichever god it was) had carved
that now neat heap and shaped it into parts,
he next, to make it equal all around,
sculpted the earth till it became a sphere.
He poured out seas, then ordered them to swell
with gales and wrap the shores of circled land.
He added springs, great lakes, and ponds. He shut
the sloping rivers in meandering banks—
some of these are absorbed by earth, while others
flow to the deep and, welcomed in its vast
expanse of water, pound not banks but shores.
He ordered fields to spread, valleys to sink,
leaves to enshroud the woods, and peaks to rise.
And as two zones divide the sky’s right side
and two the left, the middle fifth one warmer,
just so the god partitioned earth within,
imprinting it with tracts of this same number.
The middle zone is far too hot for life,
the outer two too deep with snow. He placed
two more between, a blend of heat and cold.


48 tracts of this same number: The earth

is divided into five zones: the middle
equatorial zone (too hot for life), the two
outer polar zones (too cold for life), and,
between these, the two temperate zones
(conducive to life).

Ted Hughes’ translation of the same passage:

When the ingenious one
Had gained control of the mass
And decided the cosmic divisions
He rolled earth into a ball.
Then he commanded the water to spread out flat,
To lift itself into waves
According to the whim of the wind,
And to hurl itself at the land’s edges.
He conjured springs to rise and be manifest,
Deep and gloomy ponds,
Flashing delicious lakes.
He educated
Headstrong electrifying rivers
To observe their banks – and to pour
Part of their delight into earth’s dark
And to donate the remainder to ocean
Swelling the uproar on shores.
Then he instructed the plains
How to roll sweetly to the horizon.
He directed the valleys
To go deep.
And the mountains to rear up
Humping their backs.
Everywhere he taught
The tree its leaf.
Having made a pattern in heaven –
Two zones to the left, two to the right
And a fifth zone, fierier, between –
So did the Wisdom
Divide the earth’s orb with the same:
A middle zone uninhabitable
Under the fire,
The outermost two zones beneath deep snow,
And between them, two temperate zones
Alternating cold and heat.

Way way back 40 years ago, I studied Latin for what were then called O-levels, and one of the set texts was a Belfast-teenager-friendly translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I loved it. If you don’t know, it’s a narrative poem in fifteen books re-telling classical legends, concentrating in particular on those where there is a change of shape – usually humans turned into animals, vegetables or minerals, though with other variations too. It’s breezy, vivid and sometimes funny, and it’s been a store of easily accessible ancient lore for centuries.

I’d always meant to get back to it properly, and it finally popped up on my list of books that I owned but had not yet blogged here. However, my 40-year-old copy is safely in Northern Ireland, so I acquired both the latest Penguin translation, by Stephanie McCarter, and Ted Hughes’ selection of twenty-four choice chapters, and read them – I took the McCarter translation in sequence, and then jumped across to read the relevant sections if Hughes had translated them, though he put them in a different order.

I do find Ovid fascinating. In some ways he speaks to the present day reader very directly – a lot of the emotions in the Ars Amatoria could be expressed by lovers two thousand years later. But here he’s taking material that was already very well known, the Greek and Roman classical legendarium, and repackaging it for a sophisticated audience in the greatest city in the world. The book ends (McCarter’s translation):

Where Roman power spreads through conquered lands,
I will be read on people’s lips. My fame
will last across the centuries. If poets’
prophecies can hold any truth, I’ll live.

And he did. I have been particularly struck by Ovid’s popularity among the patrons of my favourite 17th-century stuccador, Jan Christiaan Hansche. A number of his most interesting ceilings feature stories from Ovid, some of them well known, some less so. Sixteen centuries after Ovid laid down his pen, his work was still part of the standard canon of literature known to all educated Western Europeans.

So. The two translations are different and serve different purposes. McCarter’s mandate was to translate the whole of the Metamorphoses into iambic pentameter in English. She is necessarily constrained to giving us an interpretation of Ovid’s text, with all of its limitations, and confining her own original thoughts to footnotes and other supporting material.

In a very interesting introduction, she is clear about the many scenes of rape in the story. But she also makes it clear that Ovid has a lot more active female characters than are in his sources, and they get more to do. She gives some telling examples of previous translators projecting later concepts of femininity onto Ovid’s fairly unambiguous original words.

Given the contemporary debate, it’s also interesting that Ovid has several examples of gender fluidity – not really presented as a standard part of everyday life, but nonetheless as a phenomenon that happens. For Ovid, we must simply accept that someone’s current gender may not be the one that they were born with.

Ted Hughes, on the other hand, was translating favourite bits of Ovid because he had reached the stage of his career where he could do what he wanted. He could leave out all the bits he found boring (I haven’t counted, but I think he translates about only 40% of Ovid’s text), and he could add his own flourishes at will. Inevitably this makes for a more satisfactory reading experience, though it is incomplete.

Both translations bring to life Ovid’s vivid imagery, which really throws you into the narrative. For a compare and contrast passage, here is the beginning of their treatment of the story of Phaethon, the son of the Sun who crashed to disaster trying to drive his father’s chariot (a favourite topic for Hansche). I think that the differences speak for themselves:

McCarterHughes
The Sun’s child Phaethon equaled him in age
and mind. But Epaphus could not endure
his boasts, his smugness, and his arrogance
that Phoebus was his father and declared,
“You crazily trust all your mother says!
Your head is swollen by a phony father!”
Phaethon blushed as shame repressed his wrath.
He took these taunts to Clymene, his mother,
and told her, “Mother, to upset you more,
although I am free-spoken and quick-tempered,
I could not speak, ashamed these insults could
be uttered and that I could not refute them.
If I am truly born of holy stock,
give me a sign and claim me for the heavens!”
Wrapping his arms around his mother’s neck,
he begged—by his life, Merops’ life, his sisters’
weddings—that she give proof of his true father.
When Phaethon bragged about his father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him.
‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’
In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.
‘If it’s true, Mother,’ he cried, ‘if the sun,
The high god Phoebus, if he is my father,
Give me proof.
Give me evidence that I belong to heaven.’
Then he embraced her. ‘I beg you,
‘On my life, on your husband Merops’ life,
And on the marriage hopes of my sisters,
Only give me proof that the sun is my father.’

I think I’d recommend that a reader unfaniliar with Ovid start with Hughes and then go on to McCarter to get the full story. You can get the McCarter translation here and Hughes here.

This was the top book on my shelves that I had read but not yet blogged. Next on that list is rather different – The Cider House Rules, by John Irving. It’s also right at the end of my 2023 books queue so it will be a while before you hear about it.

Galaxy Four – the new(ish) DVD

My loving spouse got me the three most recent Doctor Who animated DVDs for Christmas, and I have started working through them. First up is the first story of the original Season 3, Galaxy Four, which as with many other stories I first watched in 2007. I wrote then:

Galaxy Four was the opening story for the original third season of Doctor Who back in September 1965. No new or departing companions, just the First Doctor, Steven and Vicki landing on a doomed planet and finding themselves forced to decide whether to help the beautiful but militaristic Drahvins or the repulsive Rills with their robotic Chumbly servants. I thought it was rather good, and I say this as one who doesn’t normally like reconstructions (I will probably get hold of the narrated audio as well to compare). [Note: I didn’t.]

There is great violence done to astrophysics in the set-up – as so often, there seems a basic confusion between the concepts of “galaxy” and “solar system”, and I can’t quite believe the idea of a planet in orbit around several suns simultaneously, which is about to be destroyed by the gravitational stresses, and nonetheless is habitable with a breathable atmosphere. But hey, this is a story where a police box with an impossibly large interior travels through time and space, so we shouldn’t complain too much.

Anyway, I thought the idea of two completely inhuman races in the story, and appearances being deceptive, made a very nice tale.

When I came back to it in my Great Rewatch a couple of years later, I wrote:

The only completely missing story of this run is Galaxy 4, which means we are in a slightly chalk-and-cheese situation. From surviving clips, the look and sound of the alien planet was pretty impressive – I see it is Geoffrey Hodgson who gets the credit for the background noises, which really deserve to be described as incidental music. It’s also a rather interesting reintroduction of the Doctor, now shorn of his original companions, as an ethical hero – the Rills recognise his moral superiority, to the point that they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for him if necessary. And the story itself has a more explicit moral message (“don’t judge by appearances”) than most Who stories. This third season starts with far future allegory and ends with contemporary political commentary, by way of epic and slapstick. Having said all that, unfortunately the actual plot details of Galaxy Four are pretty silly – why on earth would the Drahvins send the Doctor and Vicki to capture the Rills’ ship? What possible scientific basis can there be for the planet exploding? Poor Steven, as Peter Purves bitterly points out, ends up playing a part originally written for Barbara. It is a somewhat wobbly start to the new season.

I’m taking my reminiscences slightly out of order. Galaxy Four was one of the rare stories which I first encountered through reading the novelisation in New Who era – I happened to pick it up as a freebie given away with a magazine in June 2007. This was the month of Blink and Utopia, two of the best episodes of the Tenth Doctor era (or indeed any era). Unusually, the book just has four chapters, one covering each of the televised episodes (most novelisations break up the narrative into multiple chapters). The second paragraph of the third chapter, briefly, is:

‘What is it?’ Vicki gasped.

When I first read the book, I wrote:

Galaxy Four was the first story from the third season, shown in 1966 (odd to think of it as the Classic Who equivalent of Smith and Jones). It’s the only one from that year I haven’t yet seen/heard, but I got the novel for free yesterday with the SFX Doctor Who special and read it pretty quickly. It’s actually rather good, up there with the average Missing Adventure of the Virgin series [note: I had read very few Missing Adventures at this stage] with Emms (who wrote nothing else for Doctor Who) letting us inside the mind of the Doctor very convincingly, and also attempting to flesh out his rather one-dimensional villain, Maaga, leader of the female Drahvin warriors. Must try and catch up with the actual series now, though I have a suspicion this may be one of the cases where the novel is better than the story.

Coming back to it fifteen years on, I remain favourably impressed. Emms was clearly a fan, and fills out the narrative not only with scenes that he would have liked to include in the actual show, but also with subsequent Who lore – most of the references to the TARDIS crew being from Earth are removed, and there are several mentions of the Doctor having two hearts, which of course wouldn’t become TV canon for another five years. We also find out that the Rills don’t share our concept of time. It’s well done, and you can get it here.

(By the way, this is the first blog post here about a book I read in 2023; otherwise I’m still working through a substantial 2022 backlog.)

Emms apparently pitched three more stories to Doctor Who without success, one for Patrick Troughton and two for Peter Davison, and the first of these was repurposed into a Make Your Own Adventure game book starring the Sixth Doctor in 1986. I read it in 2014 and was not impressed:

This was apparently based on ideas that Emms (who wrote Galaxy 4) had put together for a Second Doctor story to be called The Imps. I fear it may be one of those cases where we should be rather glad it wasn’t made. The plot, such as it is, is about a rather tedious effort to manage dangerous plants on a vital spaceship run. The next sentence of this paragraph is not an opinion I shall often have cause to express, but in this case it is true. Terror of the Vervoids did it better.

The structure of the book is much the laziest of any of the six: at every turn, you are presented with three choices, of which in every single case the first two lead to failure and the third to success. From both section 14 and section 23, the two wrong options are section 8 and section 16, while sections 12 and 22 are fatal snippets which are not attached to any preceding text. I couldn’t actually be bothered to work out which ending was meant to go with which previous section. The one mildly saving grace is that a couple of the false turns are so silly as to verge on gonzo surrealism: one option, for instance, has “you” gobbled up by Dracula and his brides (who are somehow occupying a cabin in a spaceship to Venus), and another leaves “you” trying to emulate the Scarlet Pimpernel in revolutionary France. But this is lazy stuff, contemptuous of the reader.

You can get it here.

Emms wrote no other books, but he wrote 80 TV scripts between 1963 and 1980, including twelve episodes of The Newcomers, the now forgotten soap that was Verity Lambert’s next assignment – Galaxy Four was her last complete credited story as producer.

Anyway. In 2011, one of the missing episodes of Galaxy Four was found, and the new (well, 2021) DVD includes it and a colour animation of all four episodes. I had previously watched the Loose Canon animations, which give a decent sense of the scale of the ambition of the production. But there is nothing quite like seeing the original. Here (for the time being at least) is a side by side comparison of the two.

I think Galaxy Four has some great concepts. I’ve mentioned several above: the appearances-can-be-deceptive approach to the two races of aliens, the Doctor as ethical hero, the grand sweep of the planetary setting, Geoffrey Hodgson’s electronic sounds. Stephanie Bidmead (a Kidderminster girl) is great as Maaga, leader of the Drahvins. The music is stock music rather than specially composed, but very well chosen. Peter Purves famously complained about the script, but actually I think Stephen gets as much to do as anyone. And I think it’s the first but not the last time that the TARDIS itself is used as an external energy source.

The downside is that these great concepts are united by a plot that doesn’t make much sense. There’s confusion about how long there is until the planet will explode, and no clarity about why. The plot consists entirely of the Doctor and companions running from the TARDIS, to the Drahvins’ ship, to the Rills’ ship and back again, for no very good reason. The “Trap of Steel” which is the title of the third episode doesn’t actually appear until the fourth episode. The regulars and guests carry it off well, and if you switch your forebrain off and enjoy the concepts, you’ll like it. It’s a very agreeable early case of Doctor Who engaging with classic science fiction tropes.

The new colour animation will now become the standard that fans think of as the “real” Galaxy Four. As usual, it’s good but I feel not quite as good as the real thing would have been. Some decent tweaks are made to the action, and the planetscape is beautifully realised as well. And the info text is, as usual, interesting and informative. I have not yet rewatched it with the audio commentaries by cast and others. Here’s the trailer:

Extras include the Loose Canon reconstructions for the first, second and fourth episodes – I think there would have been no harm in including the third episode as well. There is n extended interview with Peter Purves, featuring a few other people involved with the production (including Clive Doig, who I always remember for his work on Vision On), and also an interview with Terry Burnett, the man who turned out to have had the missing third episode stashed away for decades. It also has the camera scripts. A fine investment for the serious Doctor Who collector. You can get it here.