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August Books

The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe

Second speech of third scene (Act 2 Scene 1):
ABIGAIL: Now have I happily espied a time
To search the plank my father did appoint;
And here, behold, unseen, where I have found
The gold, the pearls, and jewels, which he hid.
I just loved this. Barabbas, the Jew of the title, is screwed out of his substantial property by the Christian rulers of Malta, and exacts revenge upon his enemies - at great personal cost, in particular as regards his own beautiful daughter Abigail. I paused after reading the first act, rather hoping that Barabbas would find some way of delivering his Christian oppressors into the hands of the Turks; well, without undue spoilers, I was more than satisfied by the way it ended.

Despite the grim subject matter (large numbers of violent deaths on and off the stage) there's also a deadpan humour about it, and I felt Marlowe was satirising both the cliches of bloody revenge (which I think are accepted rather less sceptically in Tamburlaine) and the unquestioning anti-Semitism of his times - Barabbas does end up as a villain, sure, but it is very clearly the Christians who have pushed him into it through state-sanctioned theft and humiliation - and if any religious group is subjected to cliche, it is the monks and nuns who were of course a focus of fear and disgust in Marlowe's England. Machiavelli introduces the play by saying, "I count religion but a childish toy", and I don't think that Marlowe is necessarily agreeing with him but I do think he is stressing that Christians can be every bit as evil as non-Christians (Machiavelli was also of course a tremendously loaded figure in Marlowe's England).

I found Barabbas a better rounded character than Shylock, to whom he clearly is closely related. Of course the Merchant of Venice is probably better in the end - the plot is less linear and more interesting, the other characters apart from the lead better rounded out - but the dialogue between the two plays is more equal than I had realised. And Barabbas gets one of the best lines in the whole of Marlowe, brought up before a tribunal of Christian clerics and accused of all manner of sins:
FRIAR BARNARDINE. Thou hast committed--
BARABBAS. Fornication: but that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.
I'd really love to see this, more perhaps than any other of Marlowe's plays. I think the resonances with our own time could be played out in a way that would make an audience of today justifiably uncomfortable.
Second speech of third scene (Act 1 Scene 3):
[Faustus invokes Mephistopheles]
FAUSTUS: Sint mihi Dei Acherontis propitii! Valeat numen triplex Jehovae! Ignei, aerii, aquatani spiritus, salvete! Orientis princeps Belzebub, inferni ardentis monarcha, et Demogorgon, propitiamus vos, ut appareat et surgat Mephistophilis. Quid tu moraris? per Jehovam, Gehennam et consecratum aquam quam nunc spargo, signumque crucis quod nunc facio, et per vota nostra, ipse nunc surgat nobis dicatus Mephistophilis!
[“Be propitious to me, gods of Acheron! May the triple deity of Jehovah prevail! Spirits of fire, air, water, hail! Belzebub, Prince of the East, monarch of burning hell, and Demogorgon, we propitiate ye, that Mephistophilis may appear and rise. Why dost thou delay? By Jehovah, Gehenna, and the holy water which now I sprinkle, and the sign of the cross which now I make, and by our prayer, may Mephistophilis now summoned by us arise!”]
This is a play with a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning and the end are very good as Faustus makes his bargain with the devil and as he faces the inevitable price that he must pay. The middle is much weaker; having been granted immense power, all Faustus wants to do with it is play a series of silly practical jokes. The first of his targets is the Pope, but there doesn't seem to be any further point to Faustus's antics other than temporary humiliation of the powerful.

I guess it's partly an indication of the demands of the stage - "Chris baby, we've got these clowns in the company, you gotta write something for them, the crowd will love it" - but I felt that Goethe found more interesting things for his Faust to do, at least in Part I (Goethe's Part II rather disappears up its own erudition). Marlowe does try to turn this around to make it an Awful Warning about the price of knowledge and diabolical deals, but surely the average audience member will feel that we end up with a character flaw on Faustus's part, in that he doesn't seem to have considered how to use his great powers, rather than a general lesson for all of us.

Still, one can forgive a lot of Acts II, III and IV for the brilliance of Act I and especially Act V. At a rough estimate 95% of the well-known quotes from the entirety of Marlowe's works come from Faustus - including, I was surprised to see, "Che sera sera", but also the better known speeches: Faustus on Helen of Troy:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Mephistopheles, on Hell on Earth:
Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
As a lapsed historian of astronomy, I have to comment on one of the more obscure exchanges between Faustus and Mephistopheles, which I think Wikipedia gets wrong (and therefore others may get it wrong too):
FAUSTUS. How many heavens or spheres are there?
MEPHIST. Nine; the seven planets, the firmament, and the empyreal
heaven.
FAUSTUS. But is there not coelum igneum et crystallinum?
MEPHIST. No, Faustus, they be but fables.
FAUSTUS. Resolve me, then, in this one question; why are not
conjunctions, oppositions, aspects, eclipses, all at one time,
but in some years we have more, in some less?
MEPHIST. Per inœqualem motum respectu totius.
FAUSTUS. Well, I am answered.
This is the secret of the universe, part of the new knowledge Faustus is getting as part of his deal. The Wikipedia entry suggests that Mephistopheles' answer to the third question ("Per inœqualem motum respectu totius" - "because of the unequal motion with respect to the whole") is evasive and demonstrates that he is fundamentally untrustworthy. I disagree; it is actually Faustus' question that is a really stupid one, and Mephistopheles' answer is pithy and perfectly reasonable and accurate. Perhaps it is from this point that Faustus realises that the secret of the universe is not really as interesting as it is cracked up to be?

Interesting Links for 30-08-2016

Second speech of third scene of Tamburlaine, Part One (Act 2 Scene 1):
MENAPHON [describing Tamburlaine]: Of stature tall, and straightly fashioned,
Like his desire, lift upwards and divine;
So large of limbs, his joints so strongly knit,
Such breadth of shoulders as might mainly bear
Old Atlas' burden; 'twixt his manly pitch,
A pearl more worth than all the world is plac'd,
Wherein by curious sovereignty of art
Are fix'd his piercing instruments of sight,
Whose fiery circles bear encompassed
A heaven of heavenly bodies in their spheres,
That guides his steps and actions to the throne
Where honour sits invested royally;
Pale of complexion, wrought in him with passion,
Thirsting with sovereignty and love of arms;
His lofty brows in folds do figure death,
And in their smoothness amity and life;
About them hangs a knot of amber hair,
Wrapped in curls, as fierce Achilles' was,
On which the breath of heaven delights to play,
Making it dance with wanton majesty;
His arms and fingers long and sinewy,
Betokening valour and excess of strength;--
In every part proportion'd like the man
Should make the world subdu'd to Tamburlaine.
Second speech of third scene of Tamburlaine, Part Two (Act 1 Scene 3):
[The imprisoned Callapine asks his guard Almeda for pity.]
Almeda.My lord, I pity it, and with my heart
Wish your release; but he whose wrath is death,
My sovereign lord, renowmed Tamburlaine,
Forbids you further liberty than this.
This is usually discussed as a single play in two parts, and I guess I agree with that, though it is notable that the two parts are set at least twenty years apart - the first ends with Tamburlaine marrying Zenocrate, by the start of the second they have three grown-up sons. I felt it had a tremendous energy; lots of violence and horrible death, a portrait of a monstrous leader who in the end is defeated not by battle but by illness. It's deliberately over the top, I think, and Shakespeare makes fun of the line "Holla ye pampered jades of Asia!" addressed by Tamburlaine to two captive kings harnessed to his chariot (in Henry IV part 2 II.iv).

A lot of commentators try to read Marlowe's own views into Tamburlaine, in particular extrapolating his supposed atheism from the scene in Part Two where Tamburlaine burns the Koran. It seemed pretty clear to me that this scene is about Tamburlaine breaking faith with his own former religion, just as he has broken faith with the Christian rulers in the first act and with his insufficiently violent son Calyphas, and we should not mistake the views and actions of the character for those of the author. That's not to say that Marlowe was not an atheist, just that I don't find this scene convincing evidence that he was (whereas I do find the opening scene of Dido convincing evidence that he was very comfortable with man-boy love).

I'm perfectly satisfied with Tamburlaine as a new form of entertainment rather than a political statement. This was apparently the first attempt to do an epic in blank verse; there's also vast amounts of conflict and spectacle - defeated opponents killed in various gory ways, Tamburlaine himself as a dominant character and aspirant force of nature, attempting to shape the world to his own liking and ultimately defeated not by Man but by entropy. It made Edward Alleyn's reputation when first produced. (It didn't make William Shatner's reputation, though he appeared in a Broadway production in 1956 as Tamburlaine's hanger-on Usumcasane.)

I've long been fascinated by the real Timur, and hope that some day I will be able to visit his tomb in Samarkand. Needless to say, Marlowe's narrative bears only the vaguest resemblance to the real history of his subject. Unlike Dido, where I think there's a didactic point about taking the Æneid and adding to it rather than varying, the point here is invention rather than history.

Interesting Links for 29-08-2016

While on holiday, I read the complete plays of Christopher Marlowe, my first encounter directly with his work. It was very interesting; I know Shakespeare to a certain extent (I read/listened to the entire canon a few years ago, starting here), and was struck by both the similarities and the differences between them. Marlowe died, of course, just as Shakespeare was getting started; experts trace several direct references to Marlowe's works in Shakespeare's plays.

I have some general thoughts about Marlowe, but I am going to save them to the end. First, I'm going to write up the six (or seven) surviving plays here, one by one, giving you my conclusions at the end.

I'm starting therefore with:

Dido, Queen of Carthage

Second speech of third scene (Act 2 Scene 1):
ACHATES: Why stands my sweet Æneas thus amaz'd?
This is the first play printed in the Complete Works although it's not clear if it was the first historically performed or written, published only the year after the authors death. Mostly it's a dramatisation of the Dido story from the Æneid, which would have been been well known to the audience (quite a different situation from the other plays where the stories are more original).

But Marlowe (with input from Nashe) bulks up two elements in particular. First, he gives Dido herself lots more to do and say than Virgil did. She is his only strong female protagonist, and although she is hopelessly and irrationally in love with Æneas (who is not such an attractive character here) this is not because she is a weak woman, it is because she is being toyed with by the gods; having been set up in a difficult situation by divine caprice, she otherwise retains agency to the end.

To the core love story, Marlowe adds a number of other romances (again, unlike his other plays and unlike the original story). Most obviously, the play opens by showing us the man/boy relationship between Jupiter and Ganymede. But there are other non-standard relationships too, and I'm struck that Marlowe was not playing them for laughs but as real situations in the terms of the story.

I wasn't able to find any audio or video of Dido online. That seems a shame to me; it's not too complex and I think would be particularly good on audio. It was apparently first written (or at least first performed) by child (=teenage) actors. The Marlowe Society has a good overiew of it here.

Death and disability

One of B's housemates died last week. He was 40, and just didn't wake up one morning. Like her, he would have been unable to tell anyone that his tummy felt sore, or his chest felt tight, or his head felt funny, and of course it might not have made a difference anyway. (I assume that the necessary investigations into cause of death have been made, and I don't expect to hear the outcome; we're not his family.)

I went to see B yesterday for the first time since our holiday (and obviously the first time since her housemate died). She was, simply, sad, and wept tears of grief beside me as we walked in the gardens. I'm sure that she knows that a sad thing has happened and that the chap who used to sleep over there isn't there any more; I'm certain that she will have picked up on the mood among the carers, who of course are devastated. The cliche is that autistic people lack empathy; this simply isn't true.

B doesn't do cuddles, but I was glad to be able to take her out for a small change of scene. I drove her to a couple of favourite walking spots but, while she enjoyed the drive, she wasn't interested in leaving the car (this is normal enough if she is feeling under the weather) and then required a lot of persuasion to go back to her house at the end of the trip. Again, I'm not terribly surprised that she wasn't rushing back to the awareness of a new absence.

B's own lifespan should in principle be the same as anyone else's, meaning that she may well outlive us by a couple of decades. On the other hand, she too may miss out on diagnosis of some life-threatening condition because she cannot tell anyone where the sore bit is. Neither of those thoughts really helps me sleep at nights.

Saturday reading

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (finishing up at a chapter a day)
Cuckoo Song, by Frances Hardinge
The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4, ed. Usman T. Malik
Brother and Sister, by Joanna Trollope 

Last books finished
The Sea and Summer, by George Turner
Planet of Judgement, by Joe Haldeman
Les Lumières de l'Amalou, by Christophe Gibelin and Claire Wendling
The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Vol 3: This Mortal Mountain

Last week's audios
You Are the Doctor, by John Dorney
Come Die With Me, by Jamie Anderson
The Grand Betelgeuse Hotel, by Christopher Cooper
Dead to the World, by Matthew Elliott

Next books

Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin
Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang
Short Trips: A Day In The Life, ed. Ian Farrington
Several significant changes to the Hugo rules were ratified by this year's WSFS meeting. Although discussion has tended to focus on the new tallying system dubbed EPH (short for E Pluribus Hugo) by its creators, two of the other amendments can also be retrospectively applied to past voting results - specifically, that there will now be (at least) six finalists in each category rather than five; and that the 5% cutoff for finalists no longer applies. Some commentators, looking just at EPH (to take two fairly representative cases, Jed Hartman and Cheryl Morgan), have expressed disappointment that the consequential changes of EPH are less satisfactory than expected. I think that, taken with the other changes made (particularly the increase of ballots to six finalists while keeping the number of nominations a member can make at five), the picture is a bit more encouraging.

(I wrote a long piece on how EPH works last year. The original proposal is here, and the version passed last weeknd here.)

EPH results have been published (except for the Best Dramatic Presentation categories) for 2014, 2015 and 1940; for 2016; and for 1941. These tables, however, don't take into account the other new rules and just show the effect of EPH if there were five finalists rather than six on the ballot for each category. They also don't show the effects on the Best Dramatic Presentation categories.

Adapting from a table created by Steven desJardins, and adding in some further data, I tabulate below exactly what difference the new rules would have made to recent Hugo ballots, starting with the Retro Hugos for 1939 (awarded in 2014) and for 1941 (awarded in 2016). There's not a huge difference in those two cases, though I think it's worth noting that in both years, one of the additional finalists in the written fiction categories would have been a story by a woman. In one category, there is no change at all, because a fifth-place tie meant that there were six finalists, all six of whom would also have been on the ballot under EPH.

1939 and 1941Collapse )

My initial analysis of the impact of the new rules on the 2014 Hugo ballot turns out to have been too pessimistic. If we have six finalists per category rather than five, I think in almost all cases the ballot would have looked better. Personally, I regret the loss of Fiona Staples from the Best Professional Artist category, but since she came 5th overall in the real ballot, I can't really argue that the voters would have been cheated of a viable candidate for the award. The only other finalist who would have lost their place on the ballot under the new rules came 7th and last in their category under the 2014 rules. Most notably, the change to six finalists per category means that the one Hugo winner who would have lost out, if EPH was brought in with no other changes, would have been able to keep their place on the ballot. NB also that there are two new finalists for Best Short Story due to the abolition of the 5% threshold.

2014Collapse )
And so to the years of the slates. As in the 1941 and 2014 tables, I've indicated the ranking of real-life finalists who would have lost their places on the final ballot under the new rules. I've also marked with a degree sign ° where No Award was given in a particular category, and also where an excluded finalist was ranked below No Award by voters in real life. In 2015, 8 finalists would not have made it to the final ballot under the new rules; in 2016 the number was rather higher, 14. In every single one of these cases, the voters ranked those finalists below No Award, so EPH does not really seem to be removing viable candidates from the process. You will need to decide for yourself if these hypothetical ballots would have been more representative of fan opinion than the real ones, and whether No Award might have won fewer categories if the extra finalists had been available as options for the voters.

2015 and 2016Collapse )
I did have a moment of concern about EPH before the Business Meeting. It obviously does have an immediate impact in opening up categories which would otherwise be closed by slates - of the 7 No Awarded categories last year and this, the new system would have brought an additional 14 non-slated finalists onto the ballot. But it also seemed to me that EPH risked losing some of the diversity of the ballot through edge effects in non-slated years. However, I had not taken into consideration the additional positive effects of i) the six-finalist ballot and ii) the removal of the 5% threshold, both of which actively increase diversity. In addition, it's now very clear that the real-life finalists that would have been excluded from a six-member ballot by EPH in the last two years all came below No Award in the actual vote, and the two who would have been excluded in 2014 both did exceptionally poorly in their categories, so my previous concern that potentially popular candidates on the final ballot would be excluded by the new nomination procedures appears to have been ungrounded.

All in all, I'm confident that this year's rule changes give the 2017 Hugos a very solid foundation.
I normally like to do these posts on the night, but circumstances prevented me this year. Next year will likely be a different matter...

Results are listed here, full details here; and analysis of the effect EPH would have had on the ballot (absent any other changes) here.

Headlines:
  • All four written fiction categories went to women who had never won a Hugo before, three of them WoC
  • Women also won both Best Editor categories and Best Professional Artist
  • An unusually high number of first-count victories:
    • Best Short Story (Cat Pictures Please)
    • Best Related Work (No Award)
    • Best Graphic Story (Sandman: Overture)
    • Best Fanzine (File 770)
    • Best Fancast (No Award)
    • Best Fan Writer (Mike Glyer)
  • Closest result at the top was Andy Weir beating Alyssa Wong by 34 votes for the Campbell award, second closest was Abigail Larson beating No Award by 84 for Best Professional Artist
  • Abigail Larson won Best Professional Artist despite being third on first preferences with only 16.7%
  • Alyssa Wong got the most first preferences for the John W. Campbell Award but lost on transfer to Andy Weir
  • No Award:
    • won only two categories this year, Best Fancast and Best Related Work
    • came second in Best Short Story, Best Graphic Story, Best Professional Artist, Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist
    • came third in Best Editor Long Form, Best Fanzine and Campbell Award
    • came fourth in Best Novelette, Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and Best Semiprozine
    • came fifth in Best Professional Editor, Long Form
  • Closest result in nominations was Julie Dillon (last year's winner) missing by 14 votes to Larry Rostant in Best Professional Artist
  • The winners of Best Short Story ("Cat Pictures Please"), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) (Jessica Jones, AKA Smile), Best Fan Writer (Mike Glyer) and Best Fan Artist (Steve Stiles) were only on the ballot because others declined nomination or were disqualified
  • Jerry Pournelle and Hello Greedo got the most nominations for Best Editor (Short Form) and Best Fancast respectively, but both came last, behind No Award, in the actual vote
Read more...Collapse )

Obviously a lot to consider here in terms of the effects of EPH, which will be the subject of my next post.

Tags:

Have you recovered from Worldcon? Good. I was travelling all weekend, and then back at work last week, so even if the statistics had been out earlier I couldn't have easily processed them. This is the first of three posts about what I take from the figures, in this case concentrating on the 1941 Retro Hugos. Official results are here, full stats here.

Headlines:

  • Closest result was "Robbie" beating "Requiem" by 24 for Best Short Story; followed by Slan beating Gray Lensman by 28 for Best Novel.
  • Closest result of any count was Hannes Bok beating Margaret Brundage by 7 for second place in Best Professional Artist.
  • First count victories for Fantasia (Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form) and John W. Campbell (Best Editor, Short Form)
  • Three of the finalists in Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) and Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) had enough nominations to appear on either ballot.
  • Given the smaller vote pool, there were a lot of close results at the nomination stage:
    • The first Tom and Jerry episode, "Puss Gets the Boot", and the Oscar winning The Milky Way both missed the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) ballot by a single vote. Ghost Wanted missed by 2, The Invisible Woman by 3, the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Fantasia by 4, and five others by 5.
    • The Phantagraph missed the final ballot for Best Fanzine by 2 votes, Detours and Snide missed by 3 votes, and another three missed by 4.
    • Art Widner missed the final ballot for Best Fan Writer by 3 votes.
    • Horton Hatches the Egg missed the final ballot for Best Graphic Story by 3 votes. Two others missed by 5 and one more missed by 6.
    • Final Blackout, by L. Ron Hubbard, missed the final ballot for Best Novel by 4 votes, Twice in Time by Manly Wade Wellman missed by 8 and Typewriter In The Sky by L. Ron Hubbard missed by 10.
      Malcolm Reiss missed the final ballot for Best Editor (Short Form) by 7 votes.
    • "Fruit of Knowledge" by Catherine L. Moore missed the final ballot for Best Novelette by 8 votes, and "Into the Darkness" by Ross Rocklynne missed it by 9.
Read more...Collapse )

Under current rules, no more Retro Hugos can be awarded until 2022 (on behalf of the 1947 Worldcon, ie for works and activity of 1946). There were no Worldcons in 1942, 1943, 1944 or 1945, and Retro Hugos for 1946 were awarded in 1996. However, this year's WSFS Business Meeting passed a change which would allow Retro Hugos also to be awarded for the missing WW2 years. If that is ratified next year, the 2019 Worldcon could decide to hold Retro Hugos for 1944 (ie celebrating work of 1943).

Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov

Second paragraph of third story ("Breeds There a Man...?"):
He was saying, “That’s right! He came in here and said, ‘Put me in jail, because I want to kill myself.’[”]
I have fallen out of love with Asimov much more than any of the other authors whose work I inhaled as a teenager, mainly because I hate cute robots, for which he may not be single-handedly responsible but for which he clearly bears the lion's share of the blame. However, this collection went some way to reconciling me. The stories I liked least were those I had read last year in The Complete Robot; I remembered reading about half of the others from my teenage years; and the rest were new to me, as far as I could remember. I was particularly struck by "Hostess", in which, for once, Asimov looks at an unhappy marriage from the point of view of an intelligent woman rather than an intelligent man; also by the alternate history twist of "Spell My Name With An S". And both "The Martian Way" and "Franchise" retained more of their attraction than I had hoped. It is also beautifully illustrated by Ralph McQuarry, which certainly helped my appreciation of the book. I started it with uneasy anticipation of disappointment, but actually was glad to have read it.

This was the most popular book on my unread pile bought this year. Next on that list is The Dinner, by Hermann Koch.

A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

Second sentence of third chapter:
The observatory presented itself to their eyes as a self-contained little community, without neighbours, and perched on the extreme end of the land. There were three buildings: a small, stone—built dwelling house, a low workshop, and, about two hundred yards farther north, a square tower of granite masonry, seventy feet in height.
This SF novel from 1920 is about a chap called Maskull who is rather mystically translated from a Scottish observatory to the planet Tormance, orbiting the double star that we know as Arcturus, where he meets various inhabitants for deep and meaningful conversations, and ends up killing most of them at the end of their respective chapters. It clearly inspired C.S. Lewis, who took a lot of concepts from this for Out Of The Silent Planet and Perelandra, except that frankly Lewis did it better, by having vaguely interesting characters and by using comprehensible philosophical dilemmas - both being areas that A Voyage To Arcturus falls down on.

Tolkien also loved the book; Wikipedia quotes Colin Wilson and Clive Barker as singing its praises. I find it difficult to enjoy because I have read a lot of the better, later stuff that it inspired. In that sense, perhaps it's a hidden taproot text for the mid-century British SF writers, unconstrained by any need to be loyal to the (hazy) scientific facts, free to think romantically and even morally about other worlds. Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman quote a critic of an early splatter film as saying "It's like a Walt Whitman poem—it’s no good, but it’s the first of its type and therefore deserves a certain position." I felt a bit like that about A Voyage To Arcturus.

This was the most popular book on my unread pile acquired last year. Next on that list is Angels and Visitations, by Neil Gaiman.

Oracle, by Ian Watson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Soon, the car and its headlights were cutting through the night at a steady eighty.
Another for my (very short) list of sff set in Belgium, this is a story of a Roman soldier yanked forward from the Boudicca uprising to the present day (1997), where he falls in with a Northern Irish brother and sister living in Milton Keynes and reminisces about his involvement with the Crucifixion; they flee to Brussels, and the story ends in an apocalyptic battle between the SAS and the IRA around the Atomium. Dedicated to Graham and Agnes Andrews, who are fellow Norn Iron expats working in Brussels. I twitched a bit at some errors of Irish and Belgian detail, but basically I enjoyed the execution of the story, especially the Roman's culture shock and the attention to local atmosphere once we get to Brussels; a little disappointed by the ending which wasn't as tidy as the plot deserved.

This was the shortest unread book on my shelves acquired in 2009, and the sff book which had lingered longest unread on those shelves. Next in line respectively are Winter Song by Colin Harvey and This Mortal Mountain, Volume 3 of the Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny.

Interesting Links for 24-08-2016

Alice in Sunderland, by Bryan Talbot

Second frame of third page:
Wow. How come nobody told me about this sooner? (Well, yes, I know you told me. I should have listened.) This is a glorious exploration of the cultural history of Sunderland and its immediate vicinity, and specifically its impact on the Alice books and the other works of Lewis Carroll. Talbot makes the argument that Oxford has for too long claimed a monopoly on Alice, when in fact both Dodgson and the Liddell family had long-standing links with this part of North-East England, and there is convincing evidence that the relationship between the families, and many crucial details in the books themselves, depend crucially on the Wear estuary. Talbot presents the entire story as told by two of his own avatars to a theatre-goer, assisted by various mythic and historical figures including the ghost of Sid James, who literally died on stage in Sunderland (on my ninth birthday, I note). And there are many diversions into Talbot's own career and personal history, and into the history of comics, picking up many pleasing resonances and a number of spot-on pastiches.

I thought this was brilliant. I love deep local histories anyway - the Irish word is dinnseanchas, the lore of places - and the fact that I know very little about that part of the world possibly enhanced my enjoyment as Talbot makes his immediate geographical landscape relevant to the cultural references which I know much better. It's a little demanding in that some knowledge of Talbot's other work, and much knowledge of Lewis Carroll, is assumed, and I guess when this was first recommended to me I probably lacked the former. But I also suspect that readers who know less about the writer can skip the more Talbot-centric parts and get a lot out of the rest. Nice also to see some photography by sbisson and marypcb of this parish.

Alice in Sunderland was shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Novel of 2007; as Niall pointed out at the time (NB Talbot responds several times in comments), it is only tenuously sf and not really a novel, and duly lost to Brasyl. But it's great that its genius was recognised by BSFA nominators.

This was the top unread comic on my shelves. Next on that list is volume 1 of Paper Girls, by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang.

Interesting Links for 23-08-2016

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
For Ranjit, the experiment was not so successful. Gamini was away, so he had no one to enjoy it with, and world news remained bad.
I wasn't sure if I would enjoy this, Clarke's last book and Pohl's second last novel, both aged around 90 when it came out - particularly after bouncing off the recent John Le Carré. But in fact it is comforting home ground for Clarke fans, with perhaps a little hint of Pohl here and there. There are hat-tips to The Fountains of Paradise, Imperial Earth and Childhood's End; there is lots of deep love for a peacefully multiethnic Sri Lanka; there's a new solution to Fermat's Last Theorem (Pohl was fascinated by number theory); and there is an informal world government which is then held to account by tough-but-fair aliens and endangered by subversion from American securocrats who like indulging in extraordinary rendition. The writing is lucid and permeated with a love of humanity and of diversity.

There are a couple of major flaws. The biggest is that in a novel set apparently towards the end of the last decade, nobody has a mobile phone. Knowing what we do about Sri Lanka, some of the political scenery seems a little too idyllic. World conflicts apparently never involve the superpowers but only local actors. The end of the book loses focus as plot lines get resolved and new ideas briefly introduced. But I find all of this forgiveable in the last expression of Clarke's utopian vision of the future, assisted by Pohl.

Tears of the Oracle, by Justin Richards

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The angel was actually a collection of data equations and mathematical emulations that had once been a Ship. Probably. Now it was reborn as Gabriel, though he preferred to go by the name given him by Professor Bernice Summerfield over sherry: Clarence. And God was the supercomputer that, for want of a better description, oversaw and organized the lives of the People. And the People, the organic ones, the Ships and droids, and the few hybrid entities like Clarence, lived in the Worldsphere. And the somewhere that most of God 'lived', at least for most of the time, was a moon called Whynot. Though nobody knew why that was.
This is one of the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures involving the People, the Whoniverse's adaptation of Iain Banks' Culture, though in fact here they are more a part of the background as Benny goes off to resolve a mystery as part of a crew whose numbers begin to dwindle violently as soon as they reach their destination and begin communicating with the local ancient entity (the Oracle of the title). Nothing is quite what it seems - is Benny dying? Is Braxiatel the Doctor's brother? - but I kept turning the pages to find out what would happen next. I've said before that Justin Richards is the Terrance Dicks of the current generation of Who writers - insanely prolific (has written more Who books than anyone bar Dicks, and more spinoff novels than anyone else at all), prose always at least workmanlike, sometimes jumping track to be memorably good, and this is in the latter category.

Next in sequence: Return to the Fractured Planet, by Dave Stone.

Interesting Links for 21-08-2016

Saturday reading blog

Current
Watership Down, by Richard Adams (finishing up at a chapter a day)
The Sea and Summer, by George Turner
Les Lumières de l'Amalou, by Christophe Gibrlin and Claire Wendling
The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Vol 3: This Mortal Mountain

Last books finished
Tears of the Oracle, by Justin Richards
The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment, by Bryan Talbot
Dido, Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe
The First Part of Tamburlaine the Great, by Christopher Marlowe
Oracle, by Ian Watson
The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great, by Christopher Marlowe
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe
A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay
Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe
Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov
The Massacre At Paris, by Christopher Marlowe

Next books
Dictionary of Methodism, by John A Vickers
Planet of Judgement, by Joe Haldeman
The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4, ed. Usman T. Malik

Books acquired in last week
Providence, Act 1 ,by Alan Moore 
Saga Volume 6, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
For the Love of God, Marie!, by Jade Sarson
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling
The Space Machine, by Christopher Priest 
Fugue for a Darkening Island, by Christopher Priest
Synners, by Pat Cadigan
The Race (new edition), by Nina Allan
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Atom Bomb Blues, by Andrew Cartmel

Second paragraph of third chapter:
This particular room was shared by Ace and a science geek called Abner Apple. The guy was a professor, despite his youth. But that wasn’t so unusual here on the Hill where it seemed everyone had a doctorate –with the possible exception of the Doctor.
Getting towards the end of the Seventh Doctor novels now, this was actually the 76th and last of the Past Doctor Adventures published between 1997 and 2005. It's sort of appropriate that the last book in the series should have been written by the last script editor of Old Who sixteen years earlier, and it's a bit of a callback to earlier times, the Doctor and Ace here being definitely from shortly after The Curse of Fenric (which is similarly set during the second world war) rather from the New Adventures. Views on this from fandom seem to be mixed, but I rather liked it; the Tardis arrives in Los Alamos in 1944, in time for the Doctor and Ace to prevent history from being rewritten by sinister forces attempting to prevent the Manhattan Project, dealing with bone-headed security agents, unwittingly meddling time-travellers and bogus Japanese agents. The settings are decently realised, though I'm sure that people who know the locations could pick holes in them, and the denouement gratifyingly gonzo after the reader spends the first three quarters of the book wondering what is going on. One can imagine the writer mentally seeing this on the screen rather than the page. A good finish to the series, but I still have the Telos novella Companion Piece and the earlier PDA Bullet Time to go before I say farewell to Seven.

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