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

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Plays, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

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

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

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

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

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

The opening directions for the third scene are:

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

This scene got cut from the movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dawnhounds, by Sascha Stronach

Second paragraph of third chapter:

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

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

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

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

After Life, by Al Ewing et al

Second frame of third part (“What He Wants”, by Rob Williams):

First of the 2014 line of Eleventh Doctor comics by Titan, this introduces a new companion, Alice Obiefune from Hackney, as a regular Tardis traveller along with invisible musician John Jones and an alien entity called ARC. I like the new dynamic between the primaries, but the other two companions seem a bit superfluous, and the historical story set in the segregated Deep South pulls its punches. Pleasing enough, good art, and you can get it here.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang, by Dale Smith (and Robert Holmes, and Terrance Dicks)

I remember watching The Talons of Weng-Chiang when it was first broadcast in 1977, and loving it; the years since then have sensitised me to the racism in the story, but it retains a problematic attraction. I saw it again on videotape twice in the 1990s, and next time I saw it in 2007 I wrote:

The Talons of Weng-Chiang, from 1977, is the climax of the great Holmes/Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who (also the last directed by the superb David Maloney), and is as good now as I remember it being when I was nine. (I admit I have also seen it a couple of times since, once in the company of a girl from Manila who giggled pleasingly at the line about the Filipino army advancing on Reykjavik.) Thanks to my background reading I was now alert to look out for a particular shot at the start of episode 4 which had escaped my notice previously (on the DVD commentary track, Louise Jameson laughs loudly). There is so much great stuff here: Leela and the Doctor are both alien to Victorian London, so Jago and Litefoot are effectively the viewpoint characters; Deep Roy, later to play hundreds of Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, turns in a great Mr Sin. Yes, the ethnic stereotypes are rather regrettable (and quite apart from the Chinese, I would draw the attention of Irish viewers to Chris Gannon’s Casey), but the setting and drama are just fantastic.

When I came to it in my Great Rewatch in 2010, I wrote:

I always loved The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and rewatching it made me realise once again how brilliant it is. (I know, I said this about The Deadly Assassin too, but it’s true in both cases.) There are two big problems with the story: the fairly useless and unterrifying giant rat, and the racism including having the lead Chinese role played by a non-Chinese actor. However, the settings are beautifully done, the plotting is tight enough, Magnus Greel’s distorted face is truly horrible, and everyone takes it seriously and does it well. The script has some particular delights: “I can play the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ in a bowl of live goldfish”; “sleep is for tortoises”; etc.

I know it by heart, so this time I watched it with the cast commentary and the production subtitles. Still enjoyable, except that the racism really does make you cringe. It’s also a total Bechdel fail. Apart from Leela, there are hardly any women characters, and they do not talk to each other.

As it happens, I was reading R.F. Kuang’s Babel at exactly the same time as rewatching the show and reading the books, and if you don’t mind connecting the sublime and the ridiculous, that’s a really interesting pairing. You can get the DVD here.

Since I have it, I also went back and reread the Robert Holmes script, edited by John McElroy. The opening of the second scene of the third episode is:

2. PROFESSOR LITEFOOT’S DINING ROOM.

(LEELA peers out of the window. She hears the front door shut, then turns around.)
LITEFOOT: Nobody out there now! Fellow must have got wind of .. .
(He breaks off mid-sentence with a groan. There is a rustling sound in the hall.)
LEELA: Professor?
(She goes towards the door.)
Are you there, Professor?
(She is almost at the door when it swings open. MR. SIN is standing there, a knife glinting evilly in his hand. He moves purposefully towards LEELA. For a moment she is frozen with fear, then she grabs a carving knife from the side-table.
As MR. SIN moves stiffly towards her, she hurls the knife at him, with expert precision. It thuds into MR. SIN‘s throat but, to LEELA‘s amazement, it seems to have little effect. The weird little mannequin continues to shuffle towards her.)

I wrote in 2018:

The script, published in 1989, is really for completists only, but I would say two things: first, two of the most problematic elements of the TV series – the use of a white actor to play Li H’sen Chang, and the rather poor implementation of the giant rat – are of course invisible in the script (the racism, alas, survives); but second, so is the gorgeous staging which made it such a vivid experience when I was nine. A nice bit of nostalgia which you can get here.

Not much to add to that.

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

‘You sent for me, Sergeant?’

When I reread it in 2008, I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang also loses out in the visual stakes, but gains a bit with occasional tight-third narrative from Leela’s point of view, which accentuates one of the successful aspects of the story, the confrontation between her primitive experience and the Victorian era.

The one difference I picked up on this time is that Teresa, one of Greel’s victims, is clearly coded as a sex worker in the TV story but is a gambling hostess in the adaptation. You can get it here.

Before I get to the Black Archive, I just want to salute some of the spinoffs: a Fifth Doctor prequel, a Fourth Doctor sequel, and a whole sequence of generally excellent Jago and Litefoot spinoffs from Big Finish.

With the publication of Dale Smith’s monograph on The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the Black Archive covers six consecutive Tom Baker stories and 26 consecutive episodes, which is their longest run of any era. I think that underlines the consensus that the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, which ended with Talons, was a true high point of the show.

Smith’s monograph is actually quite short by Black Archive standards, at 137 pages. It has just five chapters.

The first, “Foe from the Future”, looks at the story’s roots in the Jack the Ripper murders, Fu Manchu and The Phantom of the Opera, and also reviews the production process which was deeply exhausting for Holmes.

The second chapter, “The Talons of Victoria”, looks at the affinity that Doctor Who has with the Victorian era, and explores the role of science and the narrative of colonialism (also very much applicable to Leela).

The third chapter, “The Time-Traveller and his Savage Companion”, looks at the many double-acts in the story – not just Jago/Litefoot but also Doctor/Leela and Greel/Chang and even Greel/Mr Sin – and also at the extent to which it really does draw on Fu Manchu, The Phantom of the Opera and indeed The Island of Doctor Moreau. Its second paragraph is:

Holmes was undoubtedly a master of dialogue, creating characters painted with broad enough strokes to be immediately recognisable, but giving each of them the ability to say just the right things to give us a clear picture of who they are. Jago’s couplet of ‘You’ve been drinking’ / ‘Well, it’s time you started’ isn’t just a funny joke3: it gives us a clear picture of what is going through his mind, what he wants and how he intends to get it. But dialogue isn’t the only thing that Holmes uses to give his characters life and depth, and his ability with double acts shouldn’t be reduced to just having a way with words. Holmes had a way with every tool in the writer’s toolkit, and the best way to demonstrate that would be to look at one of the other double acts that Holmes peppered Talons with.
3 Episode 1.

The fourth chapter, “‘Die, Bent Face!'”, looks at Greel’s disfigurement and at disability in fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, a theme that suddenly caught fire for about 48 hours last year.

The fifth and longest chapter, “Of Its Time, and Ours” addresses the crucial issue of race and racism. I think this is one of the best such analyses I’ve read by a white guy, addressing a largely white audience. We can love things that are problematic, but it’s really important to understand why and how they are problematic. Smith very briefly reviews the history of British engagement with China in the nineteenth century (it was, again, refreshing that I had just read Kuang’s Babel) and also the history of discrimination against London’s Chinese population, led by the trade unions. (He doesn’t mention the issue of Chinese slave labour in South Africa which became one of the themes of the 1906 general election, but there is plenty else to choose from.) He makes it clear that the question of whether Talons of Weng-Chiang is a racist story isn’t a matter of debate; what is up for debate is our response.

We know this is a bigger issue than just whether one story broadcast in 1977 contains racism. Talons isn’t just a product of the 70s – that young proto-fan can find it just as easily as they would find any of Christopher Eccleston’s stories. It is impossible for anyone to watch anything in the context it was made: everything is watched within an elastic context of ‘now’, and Talons is quite literally a product of now. It is easy for someone to get down their Blu-ray and settle down to watch it, to buy books about how it was made or listen to sequels that ape its atmosphere. The same can’t be said for The Black and White Minstrel Show. That’s why we feel uncomfortable when it is raised, why the urge to minimise and argue is so strong: we have watched this story and enjoyed it, and we are not racists so something else must be wrong.

But it isn’t. We are.

If we were educated through the British school system; if we have engaged with British culture; if we have lived in this country for any length of time. If we are white. It would be impossible for us to eliminate every unconscious racist assumption we have been taught to make. That is why the onus is on those of us who are white Doctor Who fans, to listen when people raise the issue of the racism in Talons. We have to educate ourselves about what that racism is and how it displays itself, and ultimately we have to decide how we as people are going to respond to it. Because it is too easy for us to push back, to force the people that racism targets to carry out the emotional and physical labour involved in educating white people. Because racism is a white problem. We benefit from it every day. It is up to us to solve it.

This is a short but powerful Black Archive, and you can get it here.

As this story demonstrates, Doctor Who has not always been good to China, but I’m glad to say that China has a thriving Doctor Who fanbase, as I discovered in October. After a couple of weeks when the Chengdu Worldcon has been excoriated in public and in private (including by me) I’ll take a moment to remember the positive.

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

Vincent and the Doctor, by Paul Driscoll (and Richard Curtis)

This is one of my favourite New Who stories. I wrote of my 2011 Hugo votes:

1) Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor. Yes, I do plan to give my first preference to the writer of The Tall GuyBlackadderMr. BeanFour Weddings and a Funeral, and The Vicar of Dibley. (Not forgetting his first great work with The Heebeegeebees.) I thought this was the outstanding Who episode of last year, the best since Blink, and my biggest difficulty in deciding which others to nominate for the Hugos was a fear that if I nominated any of them, Vincent might be crowded out. But luckily we got through that stage OK; hopefully the Alternative Vote will see the award go where it ought.

Two weeks into the 2020 lockdown, I was one of those who participated in the Twitter watchalong of the episode.

https://twitter.com/nwbrux/status/1244699509118164994

I also found that it was the top-rated Eleventh Doctor episode on IMDB.

Rewatching it again for this exercise, I still loved it a lot. It looks gorgeous, it sounds gorgeous, the acting is spot-on and the script sparkles. I have two reservations: the actual monster bit is slightly surplus to requirements, and at the end, the exhibition of van Gogh’s work would certainly have displayed his dates of birth and death rather prominently. I’ms also still irritated that a teaching moment in Dutch phonology was missed. As I wrote at the time, in the name “van Gogh”:

1) the ‘a’ is very short and low, heading towards a short ‘o’ in English.
2) both the ‘g’ and the ‘gh’ are pronounced as a softer version of ‘ch’ in Scottish ‘loch’.
3) ‘Vahn Goff’ is completely and utterly wrong. (And if you thought it was ‘Van Go’, I don’t ever want to talk to you again.)

I like his art, and we saw some at the Kröller-Müller Museum a year and a half ago. I’ve also read two biographies in graphic novel format. He’s a fascinating character who left us an evocative legacy, and Richard Curtis pushes it just far enough in Vincent and the Doctor.

Bechdel fail, I’m afraid; the two title characters are both men, and apart from Amy there is no named female speaking part. (We are told Giselle’s name after she is dead.)

Paul Driscoll’s Black Archive monograph is one of the longer and more substantial ones. Like the last one I read, on The Haunting of Villa Diodati, it links a historical story about real-life historical creators to the actual biographies and works of those creators. I found it much more successful, I think partly because I like the story much more but mainly because Driscoll has written a better book.

The first chapter, “The Voice of the Writer”, looks at the career of Richard Curtis and how Vincent and the Doctor flows from a lot of his previous themes, and also the very personal one of his sister who he lost to depression a year before the episode was written. I’ve seen less than half of the films and stories referenced, but I am convinced of a linear narrative thread connecting Vincent with About Time and Blackadder: Back and Forth. It’s detailed and well argued.

The second and longest chapter, “The Voice of the Artist”, starts by looking at other screen treatments of van Gogh’s life and death, then looks at how the episode treats him as tortured genius vs visionary artist, and finished by looking at van Gogh’s own letters for indications of how he himself saw his art.

The third chapter, “The Voice of the Monster”, looks at the monster as a metaphor for mental illness and considers how Doctor Who portrays trauma more generally. Its second paragraph is:

In a lengthy scene cut during post-production, the Doctor tells Amy that artists often see real things that nobody else notices. As they prepare to head off in the TARDIS to meet Vincent for the first time, he shows her various examples from Fuseli, Bosch, Munch and De Goya3. The Doctor’s point is that nightmares and monsters cannot always be dismissed as flights of fantasy on the part of the artist. The monster in The Church at Auvers (1890) painting reminds him of a fairy tale he’d read as a child. He cannot be sure, but he sets off on the presumption that the creature is real and not a product of Vincent’s imagination.
3  TCH [The Complete History] #65, p94f.

The fourth chapter, “The Voice of the Paintings”, looks first at how little the visual arts feature in Doctor Who outside the Moffat era and then at how much Moffat emphasised them, and then looks at several specific van Gogh paintings and the way in which they are used in the episode.

A brief conclusion considers the story as a fairy tale.

An appendix lists 46 (!) different van Gogh paintings that appear in or are referred to in the episode.

As I said, this was a long but meaty Black Archive, and I recommend it. You can get it here.

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

“Georgia on my Mind”, by Charles Sheffield

Second paragraph of third section:

It didn’t work out that way. For one thing, I overslept and felt terrible when I got up. I had forgotten what a long, sleepless journey can do to your system. For the past five years I had done less and less traveling, and I was getting soft. For another thing, the rain had changed to sleet during the night and was driving down in freezing gusts. The wind was blowing briskly from the east, in off the sea. Bill and I sat at the battered wooden table in the farm kitchen, while Mrs. Trevelyan pushed bacon, eggs, homemade sausage, bread and hot sweet tea into me until I showed signs of life. She was a spry, red-cheeked lady in her middle sixties, and if she was surprised that Bill had finally brought someone else with him to explore Little House, she hid it well.

When I was doing my first run through stories that won both the Hugo and Nebula in 2004, I wrote:

Back in the summer of 1991 I was finishing up my M Phil in Cambridge, and dropped in one day on my supervisor, who at the time was the curator of the history of science museum. He welcomed me into his office, shuffled through some papers with strange cylindrical diagrams on them, and flourished them at me: “These,” he said, “are Charles Babbage’s original blueprints for the Difference Engine.” He had a tendency to do that. I remember one seminar on Newton where he brought in an authentic 17th-century widget, “just like Newton would have had”, and showed the original owner’s notes of how it had been used, almost casually indicating at the end that the original owner in this case had in fact been Isaac Newton. We would occasionally see the current Lucasian Professor, a post previously held by Babbage and Newton, trundling through the cobbled streets in his battery-driven wheelchair.

Babbage was all the rage in those days, it being the bicentenary of his birth, and with no less than three sf novels published the previous year in which Babbage’s difference engine was actually built (Michael Flynn’s In the Country of the Blind, S.M. Stirling’s The Stone Dogs, and William Gibson & Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine), and thus the computer was brought into being a century and a half before Bill Gates. Apart from those three novels and Sheffield’s novelette, which is dated as having been finished on December 31, 1991, there aren’t many stories with that theme, though steampunk as a genre keeps on going. In all three of those novels, the difference engine is at least partly responsible for revolutionising society.

Sheffield, however, takes it in a different direction: what if it were simply built in 1850 as a project of an eccentric couple in the farther flung reaches of the British Empire, and then forgotten? His unnamed narrator and his old New Zealander friend Bill Rigley team up to find out the truth behind the manuscripts located on a farm at the back end of nowhere. In fact, the largest surviving fragment of Babbage’s analytical engine was indeed discovered, along with various papers now in the Wanganui Museum, on a farm in New Zealand in the late 1970s by Garry Tee, to whom “Georgia On My Mind” is dedicated and who “is no more Bill Rigley than I [Charles Sheffield] am the narrator of this story.” However, in our timeline the Babbage material reached New Zealand via Australia in the hands of Babbage’s son and grandson when they emigrated, rather than being constructed from scratch.

Tee made his real-life discovery about the time that Charles Sheffield’s first wife died, in 1977, and the narrator of “Georgia on My Mind” has had a similar recent loss. The theme of nostalgia and loss runs strongly and powerfully through the story, permeating the excitement of the two friends as they look through the papers of Luke and Louisa Derwent from over a century before. Anyone who has ever been bereaved will sympathise with the narrator’s sharp intake of breath as a picture of Louisa reminds him of his dead wife. The setting of New Zealand is also richly portrayed, in the days before Peter Jackson made it as iconic as it now has become. And so we are not really prepared for what happens next.

It seems that the Derwents – a married couple, exiled from England because they were also, scandalously, half-brother and half-sister – had made contact with aliens – or at least intelligent non-humans – on Macquarie Island. One last letter written in 1855 reveals that Luke and the dying Louisa set off to the permanent base of the “heteromorphs”; there is just about enough information in the manuscripts to enable the identification of the site of that permanent base as being South Georgia, in the Atlantic Ocean. (The story’s title has nothing to do with the U.S. state of Georgia, let alone the former Soviet Republic of the same name, where I will be this time next week as I write these words.)

And so, just as the Derwents’ story finishes with preparation for a long and dangerous journey, “Georgia On My Mind” ends with our narrator and Bill Rigley preparing to follow the Derwents to South Georgia. But they will not be alone; word has leaked out, and a host of people from MIT, Livermore and the hard science fiction community are rumoured to also be converging on the island. For some readers, this somewhat recursive twist at the end spoils the story. Not for me. I read it as a tribute, 14 years on, to the support Sheffield drew from his professional and literary colleagues at the time of his bereavement, and a good end to a story whose plot was never intended to be fully resolved.

I should say that Garry Tee of the University of Auckland, on whom the character of Bill Rigley is based, found this review soon after I had posted it and we maintained a friendly correspondence until he retired in 2018. If he is still around, he will turn 91 next month, so I do not feel offended that I have not heard from him in a while.

Coming back to it two decades later, I still loved this story for bringing me back to my history of science days, the most intellectually interesting work I have ever done in my life. I wondered also if E.J. Swift was slightly inspired by it for The Coral Bones. And I think we can all do with a hidden history occasionally.

Bechdel fail, I’m afraid; the two women characters are Mrs Trevelyan and Louisa Derwent, who live more than a century apart.

The story has not been reprinted in English since 1998, in The New Hugo Winners, Volume IV where I first encountered it. You can also get it in:

“Georgia on my Mind” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette presented in 1994 for work published in 1993. “The Franchise” by John Kessel was also on both final ballots. The Nebula ballot also included two other Hugo winners due to varying year / word count qualifications.

The other Hugos in the written categories went to Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Novel), “Down in the Bottomlands” by Harry Turtledove (Novella) and “Death on the Nile” by Connie Willis (Short Story). The Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo went to Jurassic Park. The other Nebula winners were Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson (Novel), “The Night We Buried Road Dog” by Jack Cady (Novella) and “Graves” by Joe Haldeman (Short Story).

Next up in this sequence: “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” by Mike Resnick.

Strawberry and the Soul Reapers, by Tite Kubo

Second page of third chapter (which is in English in the original – I checked):

Someone commented on social media that this isn’t my usual reading fare, and it’s true. Back in November I was at Brussels Comic Con, and also needed a new phone case; and I spotted a stall selling manga-style artwork including this rather striking young warrior woman. So I bought it.

I thought it must be just something that the stall-holder had invented, but young F was certain that it was a canonical manga, and after a bit of crowdsourcing with his friends, confirmed that it is Rukia Kuchiki from the BLEACH by Tite Kubo. So I invested in the first volume, Strawberry and the Soul Reaper, to become better informed.

It’s a fairly basic story of Ichigo Kurosaki, a kid with red hair (unusual in Japan, to say the least), who finds himself drawn into the grand supernatural battle between the good guy Soul Reapers and the evil spirits called Hollows. Rukia Kuchiki, the character on my phone case, is one of the immortal Soul Reapers (based on the traditional Japanese shinigami, only cuter), but ends up giving her powers to Ichigo and having to become a normal(ish) schoolgirl.

I wasn’t blown away by it, though I can see why the core audience (which I’m not in) would like it. I would have liked to see more sensitive exploration of Ichigo’s abusive family situation, and I was sorry that the promising character of Orihime was introduced and then apparently got dropped. (Though I believe she comes back in later volumes.) Those who like this sort of thing will find it the sort of thing that they like. You can get it here.

Even though it’s about a teenage boy with magical powers, I did find a scene where Rukika and Orihime are talking to each other about Orihime’s injured leg. Ichigo is in the vicinity but not in the conversation. (Read right to left.)

The end of story about the phone case is that less than three months after buying it, I found that I needed to upgrade to a new iPhone in order to be able to run my Apple Watch. So if you’d like the Rukika phone case, it’s surplus to my needs right now.

This was my top unread book by a non-white writer, and also my top unread comic in English; next on those piles are Babel, by R.F. Kuang, and Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray.

Murder in Mesopotamia, by Agatha Christie

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Mrs. Kelsey was settling into her house at Alwiyah, and I was glad to be able to take a few things off her shoulders.

This came up in conversation a couple of weeks ago, and I realised that I have it in my vast store of unread Agatha Christies, and pulled it out to see for myself. It was not one of the Christies that I had consumed as a teenager. It’s mainly remembered for the story behind the story; the first murder victim is based strongly on the real-life Lady Katherine Woolley, wife of Sir Leonard Woolley who led the 1930s excavation at Ur where Agatha Christie met her second husband, Sir Max Mallowan.

Massive spoilers: The various European and American characters in the book are vividly drawn. But the murder part of the plot is frankly ridiculous. It requires the first victim to have forgotten crucial details of her own previous marriage, and also requires that she remains strangely silent at the crucial moment of being murdered. The second murder is very poorly planned and could easily have failed. The murderer is very lucky that they actually off their victims. They are unlucky that Poirot is there to catch them out.

Despite my frustrations with the narrative, I found the context really fascinating. It’s a thoroughly racist book – Iraq was basically under British military occupation at the time, and the Arabs get barely a mention – and certainly not a positive one – in the narrative.

It was the workmen that made me laugh. You never saw such a lot of scarecrows – all in long petticoats and rags, and their heads tied up as though they had toothache. And every now and then, as they went to and fro carrying away baskets of earth, they began to sing – at least I suppose it was meant to be singing – a queer sort of monotonous chant that went on and on over and over again. I noticed that most of their eyes were terrible – all covered with discharge, and one or two looked half blind. I was just thinking what a miserable lot they were when Dr. Leidner said, “Rather a fine-looking lot of men, aren’t they?”

I was struck by a couple of other points too. The narrator’s name is Amy Leatheran; that surname simply doesn’t exist in real life. (She pops up again in the 1970 Agatha Christie novel Passenger to Frankfurt, nursing the narrator’s great-aunt, but does not appear to have aged 35 years in the meantime.) I’m wondering what significance the name has. If you swap “leather” for “mallow”, you get A. Mallowan, which was Agatha Christie’s married name, but maybe that’s stretching a bit.

I love lists of books, and here Poirot looks at the victim’s bookshelves and draws some drastic conclusions:

“In her bedroom I noticed the following books on a shelf: Who Were the Greeks? Introduction to Relativity, Life of Lady Hester Stanhope, Back to Methuselah, Linda Condon, Crewe Train.
“She had, to begin with, an interest in culture and in modern science – that is, a distinct intellectual side. Of the novels Linda Condon, and in a lesser degree Crewe Train, seemed to show that [the victim] had a sympathy and interest in the independent woman – unencumbered or entrapped by man. She was also obviously interested by the personality of Lady Hester Stanhope. Linda Condon is an exquisite study of the worship of her own beauty by a woman. Crewe Train is a study of a passionate individualist. Back to Methuselah is in sympathy with the intellectual rather than the emotional attitude to life. I felt that I was beginning to understand the dead woman.”

I thought it worth seeing which of these books, familiar to a fictional 1930s Belgian detective, has stood the test of time, and apply my usual test of Goodreads and LibraryThing users. It turns out to be about half and half. (I’m assuming that Max Born’s book on relativity is meant, rather than any other.)

TitleAuthorGR ratersLT owners
Back to MethuselahGeorge Bernard Shaw291352
Crewe TrainRose Macaulay323216
Einstein’s Theory of RelativityMax Born157308
Linda CondonJoseph Hergesheimer716
Who Were the Greeks?Sir John Linton Myres23
Life and Letters of Lady Hester StanhopeThe Duchess of Cleveland11

Anyway, it’s a book of its time and you can get it here.

Bechdel pass – the narrator is a woman and has been hired to look after a woman, and their first conversation is mainly about the latter’s health (the husband is mentioned a couple of times but he is not the main subject).

Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Hear me out.

This is a grim and also funny book about the lifestyle of a bestselling author. The protagonist, June Hayward, watches her successful writer friend Athena Liu die in an accident in the first chapter, then takes her unpublished manuscript and successfully sells it as her own. June makes some awful decisions and is repeatedly confronted with the consequences of her actions; there’s also some wickedly vicious commentary on the perception of Chinese culture and especially Chinese history in today’s America (and I don’t think that other Western countries would be very different). It’s a short but compulsive read; you can’t quite believe that June has got herself into a position where her career success depends on a gruesome lie, but you can absolutely believe the contortions that follow. You can get it here.

For some bizarre reason this book was on the BSFA Long List for Best Novel. It has no sfnal content. June thinks that she sees Athena a couple of times after her death, but I don’t think we are meant to think that it is “really” her. If it is on the BSFA short list, I will not vote for it, even though I think it is a brillliant book.

Easy Bechdel pass – in the very first chapter, before Athena dies, she and June are talking to each other about their writing and men are barely mentioned.

This was my top unread non-genre book. Next on that pile, on a rather different level, is Moonraker’s Bride by Madeleine Brent.

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne

Second paragraph of third chapter:

—My mother, who was sitting by, look’d up,—but she knew no more than her backside what my father meant,—but my uncle, Mr. Toby Shandy, who had been often informed of the affair,—understood him very well.

So, my local interest in Tristram Shandy is this. (Actually, it’s very respectful to the spirit of the book to start my review in the middle, as it were. The whole point is not to get to the point too quickly.) My daughters live close to the small village of Neerwinden, which is the site of the battle usually known as the Battle of Landen which took place in 1693. Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s manservant, Corporal Trim (pay attention there in the back) was wounded in the knee at that battle and exclaims in Chapter 19 of Book 8:

Your honour remembers with concern, said the corporal, the total rout and confusion of our camp and army at the affair of Landen; every one was left to shift for himself; and if it had not been for the regiments of Wyndham, Lumley, and Galway, which covered the retreat over the bridge Neerspeeken, the king himself could scarce have gained it – he was press’d hard, as your honour knows, on every side of him.

Neerspeken is obviously a mistake for Neerhespen, which I often drive through when I take my oldest back from a visit to the Beemden nature reserve in Landen. We usually stop off at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. (In the spirit of Tristram Shandy, I should record that I usually go to Landen by the more southern route via Eliksem and Laar.)

I first read Tristram Shandy when I was 23, more than thirty years ago, and still have the slightly mildewed paperback that I picked up off a Cambridge bookstall one day in late 1990. I can’t honestly tell you what happens in it; I can’t find any particular lines that resonate or are very quotable; the most memorable moment is when our hero’s penis gets caught in the windowframe in Book 5 Chapter 17. (Sorry for the spoiler.)

And yet somehow I love it. It’s rambling, self-indulgent, full of references to things I know nothing about; and at the same time the stream-of-consciousness narrative, the refusal to make many concessions to the reader who wants to know what is actually going on, are part of the charm. It’s clearly an inspiration for Joyce, Woolf, and lots of the modernist writers who I really like; but it’s a book of its own time, requiring friendly engagement and repaying that engagement with warmth and humour. You can get it here.

Total Bechdel fail. The most prominent female character, Tristram’s mother, spends most of the book giving birth to him, so her conversation is necessarily about her motherhood. The other women are all defined by their relationships with the male characters.

This was my top book acquired last year; next on that pile is Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey.

Attack on Thebes, by M.D. Cooper

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“Tanis and Sera are due back on the ship in another day,” she said. “Their negotiations with Scipio are over, we’re preparing to leave the Bosporus system.”

I think I bought this by accident. It is the fifth book in a series of thirteen, and I found it impossible to get into the space opera plot. I put it down after 60 pages. You can get it here.

Easy Bechdel pass, as the very first chapter has two women characters debating the politics of the empire with each other.

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is SFerics 2017, edited by Roz Clarke.

Blackpool Revisited, by John Collier

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As the show itself was transforming on screen so the exhibition began to blossom as a tourist attraction. Peripheral events such as the switching on of the illuminations in 1975 and the Blackpool Centenary celebrations in 1976 helped to cement the exhibition’s place as an exciting and worthwhile visitor destination.

A 600-page sequel to the Blackpool Remembered volume, also going back to memories of the Doctor Who exhibition in Blackpool which ran from 1974 to 1984, but this time also with material on the Doctor Who museum that was open in the same town from 2004 to 2009, and an account of some of the spinoff merchandise that was available to fans in the Good Old Days.

Like the previous volume, it’s a beautifully assembled set of photos with literate commentary. Every corner of both the earlier exhibition (again) and David Boyle’s Doctor Who Museum is described in loving detail. There is a feature on Boyle’s life and career, including some very sad photos from his final years of ill health. He was also the maker of the Dapol models which were the authorised miniatures of characters from the TV series. Short sections also look at Jon Pertwee’s Whomobile, and at Maginty, the Blackpool double of the Doctor’s car Bessie. Again, the perspective is very male and white, which is unfortunate; but it’s a labour of love, and there’s a lot of love here. You can download it for free from here (600 pages, 140ish MB).

The Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak

Second paragraph of third chapter:

From the upper windows of the Golden Court, Brunhild saw not just the river Moselle and the bridge spanning it. She could also see straight down into a small amphitheatre inside the city walls. Gladiator games had long been outlawed, but exotic animal hunts and bear baiting were still held there. These, sadly, seemed to be the main entertainment. The new queen quickly discovered that even what luxuries the Merovingian courts offered left something to be desired. There were mimes and actors in residence for instance – predecessors of the minstrels and jesters later found in medieval courts – but mostly, these performers recited long-winded national epics.

This is a book about two queens of the sixth century, both probably born in the early 540s: Fredegund of Neustria (died 597) and Brunhilda of Austrasia (died 613). You may not have heard of Neustria or Austrasia; these were old kingdoms of the pre-Charlemagne era, the tail end of the Merovingian dynasty founded by Clovis, King of the Franks, in the late 5th century. This is a period which we learned nothing at all about at school in Belfast, and if your native language is not French, Dutch or German, you’re probably in the same boat. My previous exposure to it amounted to a 2021 exhibition of Merovingian metalwork in Mariemont, off to the south of Belgium.

Neither of the two queens was in fact a Merovingian by birth, but they married two brothers, grandsons of Clovis, who ruled between them large chunks of what are now northern France, central Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of the Netherlands, with Burgundy also in the mix at various times.

Brunhilda was a Visigothic princess from Spain, who married Sigebert of Austrasia (the eastern bit) in 567. He was murdered, probably on her orders, in 575 and she ruled in Metz off and on, in her own right and as regent for the next generation, for four decades. Fredegund was a slave girl from the western chunk, Neustria, ruled from Soissons; she caught the eye of Chilperic, the local overlord, and replaced his wife (Brunhilda’s sister) as queen.

Brunhilda and Fredegund feuded bitterly until Fredegund’s death in 597, but eventually in 613 Chilperic and Fredegund’s son Clotaire managed to conquer both kingdoms, and Brunhilda (who must have been well into her 60s at this point) was executed by a gruesome method which remains obscure but definitely involved horses.

Both women have been largely written out of history. Clotaire emphasised his own legitimate descent from Clovis, not his usurping aunt or indeed his low-born mother. No men wanted to commemorate women who had survived and ruled for many years. The major contemporary witness, Gregory of Tours, is very partisan and clearly incomplete. Fredegund’s tomb has an image of her whose face has been erased. Brunhilda’s tomb has been lost, apart from two chunks of marble.

Shelley Puhak has done an entertaining job of pulling together the threads of history and legend to tell the story of the two women. She occasionally falters under the weight of detail, and at other times is forced to adopt a very chatty style to compensate for the absence of reliable sources, but one feels that she has done her best with what is available. I got what I wanted from The Dark Queens; you can get it here.

The largest menhir in Belgium is known as the Pierre Brunehaut; I visited it in February 2021. It is near to one of the many old roads known as chaussées Brunehaut in northern France and southern Belgium.

The Pierre Brunehaut near Tournai, which I visited in February 2021 with my friend J, who gives it a sense of scale.

Some speculate that the chaussées Brunehaut are the paths supposedly taken by the horses participating in her execution, but there are too many roads for that; I prefer to think that in her many years as queen, she dedicated state resources to the upkeep of the transport infrastructure, and (rather like Mussolini making the trains run on time) this has been dimly remembered by local lore. There are worse possible memorials.

Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life, by Gillian Tett

Second paragraph of third chapter:

[Chris] Whitty had reason to be worried. Some months earlier a highly infectious disease called Ebola had started to sweep through Britain’s former colony of Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia and Guinea. Groups such as the World Health Organization and Medecins Sans Frontieres had rushed to halt the contagion. So had the UK, French, and American governments, Barack Obama’s American administration had even sent four thousand troops to Liberia. The world’s best medical experts at places such as Harvard were hunting for a vaccine, and computer scientists were using Big Data tools to track it.

Gillian Tett and I were contemporaries as undergraduates at Clare College, Cambridge, in the 1980s; she studied archaeology and anthropology, and I studied natural sciences (specialising in astrophysics in the end). We did not know each other well, though we lived on the same staircase in our first year. I’ve seen her precisely twice since then, when she gave a presentation on the causes of the 2008 crisis in Brussels in 2009 and when we caught up at a college reunion in 2022 and found we had both been working on Ukraine. She is now the Provost of King’s College, next door.

Before becoming a Financial Times journalist, Tett was an anthropology student whose doctorate examined Islam and Communism in rural Tajikistan. I came to anthropology a bit later in my life – for bureaucratic reasons, my PhD, which was in the history of science, was administered in the Social Anthropology department at the Queen’s University of Belfast. I developed a deep respect for that discipline, and I’ve written about this here in the context of the House of Lords and, er, England. In my day job as a public affairs consultant in Brussels, it seems to me that I get a much better understanding of what is going on and what is likely to happen by applying anthropological analysis of human behaviour and organisational culture than by the traditional methods of political science, let alone philosophy.

Tett doesn’t make quite such grand claims for her discipline in her book Anthro-Vision. She argues merely that it would be good to take an anthropological perspective into account in making important decisions, as well as the legal, economic, political etc points of view that already are well represented around the table. Among the topics she examines are the response to the 2013-14 Ebola outbreak in West Africa; the failure of bankers to spot the risks in their own behaviour that caused the 2008 financial crisis; the appeal of Donald Trump; the difference between remote and office working; and the intriguing rise of environmental, social, and corporate governance as a serious concern in the top boardrooms of the private sector.

I think that she undersells the case for anthropology. As I said above, I think it is actually superior as an analytical framework, perhaps precisely because it is insufficiently used. On the other hand, she also frames herself as a feminist outsider who has a healthy scepticism about the claims of capitalists; but can a Financial Times journalist truly be a mere observer of the world of high finance? With that slight pinch of salt, I strongly recommend the book as a refreshingly different look at what is really going on in the world, and how important (and often bad) decisions get made. You can get it here.

The Beautiful Cassandra, by Jane Austen

Third chapter, in full:

The first person she met, was the Viscount of——a young Man, no less celebrated for his Accomplishments & Virtues, than for his Elegance & Beauty. She curtseyed & walked on.

There’s not really much here!

Bechdel pass (if being generous) in the very last chapter (it is specifically stated that she does not have a conversation with either of two women characters mentioned earlier):

She entered it & was pressed to her Mother’s bosom by that worthy Woman. Cassandra smiled & whispered to herself ‘This is a day well spent.’

This was the shortest of the unread books that I had acquired in 2018. Next on that list is SFerics 2017, edited by Roz Clarke.

January 2024 books

Non-fiction 7
Fatal Path, by Ronan Fanning
Rule of Law: A Memoir, by Glynnis Breytenbach
Anthro-Vision, by Gillian Tett
The Dark Queens, by Shelley Puhak
Blackpool Revisited, by John Collier
Vincent and the Doctor, by Paul Driscoll
The Talons of Weng-Chiang, by Dale Smith

Non-genre 4
The Beautifull Cassandra, by Jane Austen
Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
Yellowface, by R.F. Kuang
Murder in Mesopotamia, by Agatha Christie

Plays 2
The Talons of Weng-Chiang, by Robert Holmes, edited by John McElroy
Three Plays, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

SF 5
The Future, by Naomi Alderman
Attack on Thebes, by M.D. Cooper (did not finish)
Babel, by R.F. Kuang
“The New Mother”, by Eugene Fischer
“Georgia on my Mind”, by Charles Sheffield

Doctor Who 1
Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang, by Terrance Dicks

Comics 2
A Fairytale Life, by Lilah Sturges et al
Strawberry and the Soul Reapers, by Tite Kubo

5,600 pages 
9/21 by non-male writers (Breytenbach, Tett, Puhak, Austen, Christie, Alderman, Cooper, Kuang, Sturges)
3/21 by a non-white writer (Kuang x2, Kubo)
5/21 rereads (Tristram Shandy, The Talons of Weng-Chiang (script), “The New Mother”, “Georgia on my Mind”, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang)
305 books currently tagged unread, down 7 from last month

Reading now
The Dawnhounds, by Sasha Stronach
The Odyssey, by Homer, tr Emily Wilson
A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman
Tintin au Pays de l’Or Noir, by Hergé

Coming soon (perhaps)
After Life, by Al Ewing et al 
David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television, by Simon Guerrier
Kill the Moon, by Darren Mooney
Doctor Who and the Sunmakers
, by Terrance Dicks
The Sunmakers, by Lewis Baston
The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman
Sferics 2017, ed. Roz Clarke
The Smile on the Face of the Tiger, by Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond
Bletchley Park Brainteasers, by Sinclair McKay
Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North
Short Fiction of Flann O’Brien
The Wheels of Chance, by H.G. Wells
Confusion, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Moonraker’s Bride, by Madeleine Brent
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt
The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray
L’Affaire Tournesol, by Hergé
The Sol Majestic, by Ferrett Steinmetz

Rule of Law: a Memoir, by Glynnis Breytenbach

Second paragraph of third chapter:

My parents had limited opportunities when they were young. Neither of them went to university. They weren’t stupid, but their frame of reference was very limited. They didn’t read particularly widely or well. Their lives were work, home, television. My dad played tennis, too, before he retired. They weren’t very well educated, and they hadn’t travelled either. Their horizons were quite narrow and neither was particularly adventurous. When I travelled, they really didn’t get it. They thought it was marvellous that I could go to Greece, but it never occurred to them that they could have gone too. The first time they ever went overseas was in 1996 or 1997, when I sent them on a holiday.

I was encouraged to get this book, then newly published, when I visited South Africa in 2017 as a guest of the Democratic Alliance. Breytenbach is a former state prosecutor who is now one of the DA’s parliamentary stars. Her autobiography is a frank account of service to the judicial system of South Africa, punctuated by politically motivated interference (a disciplinary procedure and a criminal prosecution, both of which exonerated her). The story is told in 27 beathless chapters, full of picturesque South African slang (I am still not sure if “oke” is pejorative), punctuated also by comments from friends and colleagues.

To be honest, it is not a brilliant book. It is assumed that the reader is already super-familiar with South Africa and also with the high points of its recent criminal and judicial history. Many pages are devoted to the evils of Jacob Zuma, who was then the president of the country; in fact he was forced out of office six months after this book was published, so those sections became instantly out of date. One gets the sense that Breytenbach makes few concessions in her professional life; that’s certainly also true of her approach to her readers here. For South Africanists only, I think, but you can get it here.

This was the very last book acquired in 2017 that I got around to reading, five months after I finished the last book that I acquired in 2016.

Last book acquired in 2017, read in January 2024 (Rule of Law: A Memoir)
Last book acquired in 2016, read in August 2023 (Autism Spectrum Disorders Through the Lifespan)
Last book acquired in 2015, read in November 2022 (Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait)
Last books acquired in 2014, read in October 2021 (The Empire of Time and Crashland)
Last book acquired in 2013, read in October 2020 (Helen Waddell)
Last book acquired in 2012, read in May 2020 (A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese dialogue 2000-2003)
Last book acquired in 2011, read in October 2019 (Luck and the Irish)
Last book acquired in 2010, read in January 2019 (Heartspell)
Last book acquired in 2009, read in December 2016 (Last Exit to Babylon)

The 2018 pile is not so big and I am confident that I’ll get through it in a few months too, starting with:

  • The shortest book I acquired that year – The Beautifull Cassandra, by Jane Austen
  • The unread sf book that has lingered longest on my shelves – Attack on Thebes, by M.D. Cooper
  • The unread non-genre book that has lingered longest on my shelves – Three Plays, by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
  • The unread non-fiction book that has lingered longest on my shelves – A Life in Questions, by Jeremy Paxman
  • The top unread book that I acquired in 2018 – The Unsettled Dust, by Robert Aickman.

Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Balfour’s Irish experience was rooted in his years as chief secretary for Ireland from 1887 to 1891 when his repressive policies had earned him the nickname of ‘Bloody Balfour’ among Irish nationalists. His deep-seated Unionism was the rock on which the efforts to establish a bipartisan policy on the Irish problem had foundered in 191o. In 1920 Balfour was the cabinet minister arguing most forcefully for Ulster’s right to remain a fully integrated part of the United Kingdom. In November 1921 he remained so sceptical of negotiating with Irish republicans in the aftermath of the truce that ended the Irish war of independence that Lloyd George sent him to head the British delegation at the Washington Naval Conference lest his presence in London disrupt the negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Arthur Balfour was at once the most cultivated, the most cynical and the most cerebral of prime ministers. The trouble with Arthur, a colleague observed, is that he knows there has been one Ice Age and he thinks there’s going to be another. Who better, then, to share Balfour’s enjoyment at Shaw’s lampooning of the conduct of well-meaning English liberals in Ireland than the two Liberal leaders who were to follow him into 10 Downing Street?

I did not know Ronan Fanning well; we met a few times and I certainly admired his work. Although this book came late in his life, published in 2013, four years before he died, big chunks are apparently taken from his PhD thesis of 1968. I guess history doesn’t necessarily change that much.

The subject is Westminster attitudes to Ireland at the time of independence, focussing especially on the two Prime Ministers, Asquith and Lloyd George, and also on the leading Conservative politicians and the other Liberals, Winston Churchill in particular. My own PhD thesis concentrated on almost exactly the same period, and I thought I had done a pretty exhaustive dive into the last two decades of British administration in Ireland. So I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I learned from this book. Fanning concentrates on policy rather than administration, and on the debate in London rather than what was happening on the ground in Ireland – the Easter Rising, for instance, gets barely a page, but the British response gets most of a chapter. This is not a criticism – Fanning was entitled to write the book he wanted to write, and he was entirely correct to see a huge gap in the historiography of the period.

Things that I learned, roughly in order:

The Liberals from 1905 until the House of Lords crisis in 1909-10 were not just apathetic to Irish Home Rule, the leadership were actively hostile to the concept, and would not have ever legislated for it if they had not been backed into a corner by John Redmond and the Irish Nationalists (one of the latter’s few strategic successes).

At the same time, the Liberal government in 1912-14 knew that Home Rule could not be implemented in large parts of Ulster. Lloyd George and Churchill proposed excluding Ulster from home rule as early as February 1912. This was copper-fastened by the disloyal and treacherous actions of senior army officers, in particular Sir Henry Wilson and the brothers Hubert and Johnnie Gough, who undermined the elected government by conspiring with the opposition and with the military garrison in Ireland to provoke the Curragh mutiny in March 1914.

Therefore the counterfactual idea that, if there had been no 1916 Rising or War of Independence, a Home Rule Ireland would have eventually evolved into a Dominion-like status, is wrong. The only decisive factor affecting British policy, apart from the personal prejudices of political leaders, was violence or the threat of violence. The British folded on Ulster in 1914, and on independence for the rest of the island in 1921, purely because of the balance of coercive force. The British government’s own use of coercive force was poorly planned and disastrously implemented.

When it came to the Treaty negotiations on 1921, the British got entirely what they expected (apart from a late concession on tariffs). The Irish delegation were thoroughly unprepared, particularly on the issue of partition. Michael Collins then planned to destabilise and attempt to take control of Northern Ireland, but was distracted by the Civil War, and after that he was dead. London did nothing to protect Catholics in the North in the 1922-25 period (or for that matter Protestants in the South, though they were in less danger). The Boundary Commission, to which Fanning devotes an interesting epilogue, was designed to achieve nothing, and did so.

In general, both Asquith and Lloyd George were motivated (on Ireland at least) not by ideology but by the need to stay in power by satisfying their coalition partners, successively the Irish Nationalists and then the Conservatives. (Also Asquith was fundamentally a procrastinator who did not want to actually do anything.) The Conservatives were more ideologically Unionist than the Liberals; so too was the fledgling Labour party. Andrew Bonar Law, who actually became Prime Minister briefly in 1922-3, was Canadian by birth but an Ulster Presbyterian by background; however, once he came to power his first decision was to get the last stages of the Treaty enacted, just to get it over with.

There’s not a lot about women here, but a key figure is Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s secretary and lover. The smartest officials, notably General Macready who was the person who advised the British in 1921 that the military campaign in Ireland was lost, knew that Lloyd George never read his own paperwork and wrote to Stevenson instead. Not everyone knew this trick. Lloyd George and his key male adviser, Tom Jones, often had crucial conversations in Welsh, which nobody else in Downing Street understood.

The whole thing is eloquently written. It’s not short (361 pages) and it’s not for beginners (knowledge of the broad thrust of events is assumed) but it’s really interesting.

I found the account of the bitterly divided 1912-14 government, publicly committed to a policy goal that had been wished on it from outside, and that few of its leaders really believed in, very reminiscent of the Brexit period. But the wider lesson, that most British prime ministers spend most of their political energy on simple day-to-day survival, has much broader relevance, and not just in the UK.

Anyway, this was a tremendously good read. You can get it here.

Doctor Who: A Fairytale Life, by Lilah Sturges, Kelly Yates and Brian Shearer

Second frame of third part:

Having finished the IDW Tenth Doctor comics last month, I’m into the Eleventh Doctor run; and rather than start at the beginning of a long narrative, I picked up this one-shot album from 2011 for a sample. The author, Lilah Sturges, is best known for collaboration with Bill Willingham on the Fables series and spinoffs; I was really into that, ten years ago or so, but drifted off once the main narrative ended.

This is an enjoyable enough fantasy-world-actually-a-theme-park story, with the Doctor and Amy liberating the oppressed. The art by Kelly Yates is seriously below par though, with Amy much more freckled than the real Karen Gillan and the Doctor often looking like someone else entirely. This was early in the Eleventh Doctor era, so perhaps the lead characters’ images were not well communicated to the artist, but it’s a barrier to enjoyment. There are some nice covers by Bill Willingham though. You can get it here.

Bechdel pass: Amy and Aurelia battle an evil robot together on page 48, and then review progress on page 56.

The Future, by Naomi Alderman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Will, her late husband, sat in the wooden chair facing the lake view, watching her. He said: Tough decision?

I’m a fan of Alderman’s previous novels (The Power, Disobedience and a Doctor Who book, Borrowed Time), so was looking forward to this, a story of tech zillionnaires, apocalypse and survival. To be honest I was a little disappointed; I’m not especially interested in the cults of personality around Musk, Zuckerberg, etc, and a large part of the story evolves around equivalent characters and their entourages. There’s also an AI that is just smart enough to carry the plot forward, and a rather silly dénouement. But there are also some vivid character moments and strong descriptions of setting. So it’s entertaining, if not quite up to Alderman’s previous work. You can get it here.

Definite Bechdel pass, as two of the main characters are women in an on-off relationship with each other.

This was the very first book that I finished this year! So this is my first review to have the ‘bookblog 2024’ tag.