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Second paragraph of third story ("Angel", by 'Tara Samms' [Stephen Cole]):
The lights stay on at night, shine in your eyes, you can't sleep. When you fall to fatigue at last they wake you and feed you pills that snag in the throat.
I wasn't all that satisfied with the previous anthology in this series, but I felt this was on much firmer ground - one story for each of the first seven Doctors, with linking material featuring the Eighth, and although the stories' themes are linked, they are also different. The least successful was the first, "The Duke’s Folly" by Gareth Wigmore, which seemed to me to have the First Doctor and companions way out of character. "Angel", by 'Tara Samms' [Stephen Cole], with the Third Doctor and Jo, is gloomy but well-written. "Suitors, Inc." by Paul Magrs features the Fourth Doctor, the second Romana, Harry and Sarah and gets very silly perhaps at the expense of plot, but it is fun. Also fun but much better controlled is Rebecca Levene's "Too Rich For My Blood", in which she demonstrates her knowledge of poker (she was working on a book about it at the time this story was written) and also of the Seventh Doctor, Benny and Chris. So all in all, a decent jumping-in point if you want to sample this series.

Next in this sequence is Short Trips: A Day in the Life, edited by Ian Farrington.

My Hugo predictions

I really loved the style adopted by Kyra when making her predictions this time last year. Based on a little more than gut instinct (ie reading every public blog post that I could find by anyone which mentioned the Hugo in the last couple of months), I am copying her example and making my predictions for this year's Hugos, in the order that the results will be declared on Saturday night (early Sunday morning this side of the Atlantic).

Read more...Collapse )

Let's see what happens...


Second extract in third chapter:
‘I’ll introduce myself. Name’s Lt John MacGregor, as a matter of fact, in the I.P.F.’
‘Interplanetary Force,’ goggled Fred.
‘Precisely,’ said MacGregor with an exaggerated bow.
‘My man, you are now in the presence of the John MacGregor who has shot down seventeen of the Martian invasion fleet.’
This is a point-and-laugh collection of extracts from sf books and films which are grotesquely over-written or badly written, and does pretty much what it says on the tin. Some of the extracts are pretty glorious but I'm afraid most just made me wince. I found the first half, which concentrates on books, much more interesting than the second half, which concentrates on films. Part of the Neil Gaiman Humble Bundle that I got last year.

This reached the top of my list of unread sf recommended by you guys at the end of last year. However, I think I'm going to count it as non-fiction instead, as the interpretative framing is the core of the book. Next on that list anyway is Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge.

The Host, by Peter Emshwiler

Second paragraph of third chapter:
"Oh, good, Watly. Oh, good. Perfect timing. Just perfect. Couldn't've asked for better. Things'll be ready in just - almost perfect timing, Watly. A few more minutes and we'll sit down to a - be ready in a few minutes, Watly. You have a seat and put your feet up."
This 1991 novel may have been partly inspired by Frederik Pohl's memorable 1974 story "We Purchased People", with which it shares the concept of human bodies being rented out for use by other intelligences, the original owner helplessly aware as murder is committed by their hands. However it's not quite in the same league - where Pohl's protagonist is repulsive and has done dreadful things with the result that he is punished by being rented out to aliens, Emshwiler's Watly is participating in the free market and renting himself to rich humans, in a near-future surveillance society which is sexually liberated in many ways except that it remains deeply homophobic. The impact is very different - Pohl gets us to sympathise with an awful man to whom awful things happen, Emshwiler switches from the implications of the hosting technology to standard techno-thriller mode once we've had the original setup, allowing him to explore his future city at exciting pace, before the inevitable twist leads to a predictable conclusion.

This was the SF book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next in that list is This Mortal Mountain, Volume 3 of the Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny.
Second paragraph of third chapter:
Other than this official scrutiny, Verity knew that she was likely to be the focus of a different kind of attention in her new role and, as a consequence, she was careful with her image, choosing well-cut expensive clothes to offset her well-cut, expensive hair, discreet jewellery and killer heels. She was adopting her version of what would later be termed 'power dressing', acquiring a style to belie her youth and counterpoint her natural authority. She was, she later said, 'a bit of a freak' and arrived when both her new bosses, Sydney Newman and Donald Wilson, were on leave so must have felt all the more exposed. But it is not true that she knew no one else at the BBC; Newman had already brought over some of the old crowd from ABC and her friend Irene Shubik would soon follow her.
On the strength of Marson's biography of John Nathan-Turner, the last producer of Old Who, I bought this, his biography of the show's first producer. I found it a somewhat frustrating read. As an examination of Verity Lambert's career in her own terms, it's compelling and exhaustive - friends, enemies, ex-husband and lovers are all interviewed and provide a three-dimensional perspective of a driven, creative personality. It's a more cheerful book than the Nathan-Turner biography because Lambert's career was far more successful; she died in her 70s, a month before she was due to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Women in Film and Television Awards, and the day before the 44th anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who.

(Some of her personal effects were auctioned on eBay after her death, and I ended up with her complimentary copy of the 2003 DVD of The Three Doctors. She had not opened it - she says on one of her last DVD commentaries that she found it difficult to watch the deterioration of William Hartnell's health even from her own time as producer, so it's hardly surprising that she gave The Three Doctors a miss.)

I was aware of her early triumph in successfully handling a live broadcast of a play where the actor playing one of the key characters suddenly died in the middle of filming, and of course of her contribution to Doctor Who; I must say I had forgotten about her contributions to so many subsequent successes of television and film - Adam Adamant Lives!, Shoulder to Shoulder, Rumpole of the Bailey, Clockwise, A Cry in the Dark, G.B.H., Sleepers and Jonathan Creek.

The big flop was Eldorado, which I actually rather liked in the day; Marson's analysis of what went wrong is interesting but doesn't quite land its punches. For me, the two obvious mistakes were the initial casting of so many weak actors (which would appear to have been entirely Julia Smith's fault rather than Lambert's) and the over-ambitious timescale which led to early episodes being filmed on a set that was still being built (definitely Lambert's fault rather than anyone else's). It would have been interesting to see if a connecting line could be drawn between the Eldorado fiasco and Lambert's other big professional setbacks - the court case on intellectual property theft for the concept behind Rock Follies, which she lost, and her feuds with Irene Shubik and a few others.

There were three other areas which I wish Marson had stepped back to explore in more depth. The first is the overall cultural role of film and television in itself. We rather get the impression that Lambert's work was important because she did it, rather than looking at the wider social import. There is loads of research available on this, much of it citing Lambert, and it's a shame that none of it is used here. The second is feminism - the extract I give above illustrates the difficulties that she faced in her early years because of her gender, but it's irritating that this pops up over and over as incidental detail rather than as a unifying theme. The third is Jewishness (if that's the right word). Lambert was strongly identified as a Jew, whether she wanted to be or not, and she varied on that at different times in her career. But it would have been nice to read a bit more background about how Jews fitted into British society in general in Lambert's lifetime, and into the entertainment industry in particular.

Having said that, it's still a better book than the John Nathan-Turner biography because it has a more interesting subject, and perhaps has learned a little from the previous one.

Saturday Reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
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

Last books finished
Merchanter's Luck, by C.J. Cherryh
The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro
Atom Bomb Blues, by Andrew Cartmel

Next books
Oracle, by Ian Watson
The Complete Plays of Christopher Marlowe
Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov

Books acquired in last week
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, by Frank McGuinness
Second paragraph of third chapter:
Yes, she had seen the tree, she [Polynesia the parrot] told us, but it still seemed a long way off. The Doctor wanted to know why she had taken so long in coming down and she said she had been making sure of her bearings so that she would be able to act as guide. Indeed, with the usual accuracy of birds, she had a very clear idea of the direction we should take. And we set off again, feeling more at ease and confident.
I picked this up two weeks ago during an insomniac spell and of course read it very quickly - it's a very short book, the eighth of the series of twelve books about the Doctor who learns to talk to animals.

The writer assumes that the reader has read the previous books in the series, particularly the immediately preceding Doctor Dolittle's Garden which apparently ends with the Doctor and friends borne to the Moon by a giant moth. So we start bang in the middle of the narrative, with no explanation of who any of the characters are or why they are doing what they are doing' it's a bit unnerving.

Then we get to the Moon, which owes a certain amount to Lucian of Samosata, with a couple of updates to take account of contemporary scientific knowledge (the lighter gravity, the shorter distance to the horizon; though by the 1920s it was pretty clear that there was no beathable atmosphere, let alone lush vegetation). The Doctor leantrs to talk to lunar plants, applying the techniques he has long employed for animals on Earth. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the race-memory of the formation of the moon passed down to the monkey Chee-Chee and the true identity of the Man in the Moon. It's interesting to note that the plants of the moon submit to a centrally planned schedule of reproduction so as to avoid exhausting their world's natural resources, but probably this should be read as vaguely utopian rather than anything more specific.

Readers in Australia can access the whole thing here.
Second paragraph of third chapter:
Dr. Jones greeted me at the door. She was lovely, polite, brown. She appeared to be somewhere in that range between forty and seventy years, when it becomes difficult to precisely ascertain a black person's precise age. She was well composed, given the subject of our conversation, and for most of the visit I struggled to separate how she actually felt from what I felt she must be feeling. What I felt, right then, was that she was smiling through pained eyes, that the reason for my visit had spread sadness like a dark quilt over the whole house. I seem to recall music - jazz or gospel - playing in the back, but conflicting with that I also remember a deep quiet overcoming everything. I thought that perhaps she had been crying. I could not tell for sure. She led me into her large living room. There was no one else in the house. Her Christmas tree was still standing at the end of the room, and there were stockings bearing the name of her daughter and her lost son, and there was a framed picture of him - Prince Jones - on a display table. She brought me water in a heavy glass. She drank tea. She told me that she was born and raised outside of Opelousas, Louisiana, that her ancestors had been enslaved in that same region, and that as a consequence of that enslavement, a fear echoed down through the ages. "It first became clear when I was four," she told me.
This is a tremendous short book about institutionalised racism in the United States, and in particular the simple fact that black Americans live in continual fear of being killed by agents of the state who are unaccountable for their violence, this being a situation deliberately engineered by the state. The death of Coates' college friend Prince Jones, at the hands of an undercover black policeman from the notoriously violent Prince George's County force, is the crux of the argument, framed as a letter from Coates to his teenage son but also of course an open letter to the rest of us.

The unaccountable use of fatal violence by the forces of the state is of course not unique to America, and where I felt Coates lost focus a bit was on the comparative side of things; I think that there are probably positive lessons to be learned by the US from security sector reform successes in other countries (many of which were actually supported by American taxpayers). It's also a little startling to read his starry-eyed impressions of France, which is hardly a racism-free nirvana. But at the same time, Coates is already one of the most vocal and eloquent commentators on race in the USA and perhaps more widely; and this book has his thoughts distilled into easily digestible length and form. Well worth reading.

This came to the top of my pile as both the most popular unread book by a non-white author and the most popular non-fiction book. The next in those categories are respectively The Apex Book of World SF: Volume 4, and The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj.

Interesting Links for 12-08-2016

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Tove's youth and her attitude towards her own life are perhaps best illustrated by the ex libris motto she created in 1947, and used from then on. The Latin phrase - labora et amare - is not quite correct grammatically, but its intended meaning is 'work and love'. It was characteristic of Tove to put work before love. Most young women would have put them the other way around.The small ex libris drawing contains a large number of motifs, including sea, anchors, roses and thistles, and grapevines winding around Greek columns. Right in the centre of the drawing is a burning heart, at the top right is a naked woman, and on the top left a lion king with a crown, brushes and palette. Tove's astrological sign was Leo. Along with representation of all the things that she loved, the drawing also shows her own symbols. The large number of different elements makes the small picture area rather crowded, rather like the life of the artist who is just starting out, a young woman in quest of independence and great love. Later she drew another ex libris in the form of a large sea wave. Her last essay in the genre was illustrated by Ham [her mother], and based on Tove's initials.
I'm fascinated by the great Finnish writer Tove Jansson, and I was fascinated by this book. Growing up in an artistic household, she saw herself as an artist above all else. She wasn't terribly political, though some of her lovers were, and she did some excellent satirical covers for the magazine Garm in the 1930s. But after the war, her artistic style was out of tune with the times, and while trying to make a living from her art she discovered that her other skills were sometimes more lucrative: her book illustrations and, of course, the Moomins. I hadn't realised that the Moomins hit the English speaking world big time as early as 1954, when a London newspaper (the Evening News, which merged with the Evening Standard in 1980) commissioned a regular comics strip from her which was widely syndicated. Although she only did it until 1961 (her brother Lars shared the burden from 1959 and took over completely until it ended in 1975) it was a step change in her circumstances.

Tuula Karjalainen's biography looks in detail at her work but also at the way in which Jansson's love life intersected it. Like her parents, her lovers were all creative artists in one way or another - Sam Vanni, Tapio Tapiovaara, Atos Wirtanen, Vivica Bandler and finally Tuulikki Pietilä, immortalised as Too-Ticky in the later Moomin books. Karjalainen is very good at teasing out the direct and indirect influence of Tove Jansson and the people she loved on each other's works - starting when she was still a teenager and modelled for her father's sculptures. Jansson's relationship with Tuulikki Pietilä seems to have been the least dramatic of all, and lasted for fifty years.

The book is beautifully illustrated, as you would hope given the importance of the argument that Tove Jansson's art was crucial to her life; it's a real joy just to look at, with Tove Jansson's handsome figure over the years - always slim and sharp, to the very end - dominating the pages. I think even readers who had never heard of her would enjoy just looking at it.

This was the remaining non-fiction book most recommended by you guys at the end of last year. Next on that list is A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton.
Second paragraph of Part Three, from Monologue About What We Didn’t Know: Death Can Be So Beautiful, an interview with Nadezhda Vygovskaya, evacuee from the town of Pripyat:
It happened late Friday night. That morning no one suspected anything. I sent my son to school, my husband went to the barber’s. I’m preparing lunch when my husband comes back. “There’s some sort of fire at the nuclear plant,“ he says. “They’re saying we are not to turn off the radio.” I forgot to say that we lived in Pripyat, near the reactor. I can still see the bright-crimson glow, it was like the reactor was glowing. This wasn’t an ordinary fire, it was some kind of emanation. It was pretty. I’d never seen anything like it in the movies. That evening everyone spilled out onto their balconies, and those who didn’t have them went to friend’s houses. We were on the ninth floor, we had a great view. People brought their kids out, picked them up, said, “Look! Remember!” And these were people who worked at the reactor – engineers, workers, physics instructors. They stood in the black dust, talking, breathing, wondering at it. People came from all around on their cars and their bikes to have a look. We didn’t know that death could be so beautiful. Though I wouldn’t say that it had no smell – it wasn’t a spring or an autumn smell, but something else, and it wasn’t the smell of earth. My throat tickled, and my eyes watered.
It's just horrifying, isn't it? Alexievich has collected story after story of ordinary people whose lives were destroyed by the after effects of the Chernobyl explosion on 26 April 1986 (my 19th birthday). Although Chernobyl itself is just inside Ukraine, the Belarussian SSR, now the independent state of Belarus, was much worse hit - 22% of its territory was contaminated to a high level by radioactive materials. I must say I have personal concerns - at the time I was working outdoors on an archaeological site in southern Germany, though I'm glad to say that any ill effects have failed to become apparent in the last thirty years.

I bought this after Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize last year. Belarus is a country of deep fascination for me - I had two colleagues from there in my last job, one of whom lost her father (an open air theater performer) to cancer in the late 1980s. It's the largest European country that I have not yet visited (the others are Norway, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania). For those who are fascinated by the JFK assassination, Minsk of course has a crucial role. I'm told that its Metro is the most spectacular in the former Soviet Union, outclassing Moscow's.

The words reported here are those of the speakers. But Alexievich weaves them together to form a coherent image of a country whose vitals were poisoned over one weekend in 1986, whose people weren't told then and haven't been told now what was really going on - massive sacrifices made in human terms, but for what benefit, if any? Nuclear physicists and experts are interviewed, but more to get the human side of their story rather than to delve into the technical aspects of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented or the effects ameliorated.

Chernobyl was a massive industrial accident, and I think it makes most sense to look at it in that way - a tech-obsessed totalitarian system, already living on borrowed time, unable to bridge the gap between the politically driven needs of the industrial-technological compex and the existential needs of its own citizens. Alexievich concentrates on this human story, rather than drawing wider conclusions about nuclear power. I would observe that even on the most extravagant estimates of the effects of Chernobyl, more people were killed in Bhopal, or in the Great London Smog, never mind the Banqiao Dam disaster of 1975. (And the overall toll to human health and world climate from the fossil fuel industry over the centuries is clearly massive.) Read the book for what it is - but do read it.

This was the most popular non-fiction book on my shelves. While reading it I acquired Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which immediately became the next on that list.

Holes, by Louis Sachar

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Stanley was sitting about ten rows back, handcuffed to his armrest. His backpack lay on the seat next to him. It contained his toothbrush, toothpaste, and a box of stationery his mother had given him. He’d promised to write to her at least once a week.
This is apparently a classic of recent vintage, having won the 1998 U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature and the 1999 Newbery Medal. I must say I'm not at all convinced that it will have the staying power of, say, A Wrinkle In Time. It's a sweet story about a 14-year-old who is found guilty of a crime he didn't commit, and finds himself incidentally righting ancient family wrongs while carrying out his sentence of digging holes in a dried lake bed. You won't learn much about the American penal system, Latvia, or geology from this; you'll probably be mildly entertained.

This was the most popular book on my shelves that I have not reviewed online. Next on that list is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce.

Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
It was indeed the stranger, tall and gaunt in a black cloak. Behind him hunched a short, gnarled old man, carrying a leather satchel over one shoulder.
I enjoyed this more than any of KSR's books since The Years of Rice and Salt, with which it shares a fascination for the history of science. However, in this case we have not one alternate timeline, but two different epochs: the real historical life of Galileo Galilei as he first turns his telescope to the skies and gets into trouble with the church, and a far-future civilisation in Jupiter orbit that summons him to participate in their parties and plots, while also trying to preserve him from the awful fate that threatens him. I found the retelling of the much-retold story of Galileo's life and tribulations very effective, though perhaps running out of steam towards the end. I didn't get as much out of the far future narrative, where I found the means and motivation of the main characters more difficult to grasp. I still liked it more than Forty Signs of Rain, 2312 or Aurora. Galileo's Dream was on the 2010 shortlist for the Clarke Award, but was beaten by The City & The City. Fair enough.

This was the most popular unread book I acquired in 2010. Next on that list is Cauldron, by Jack McDevitt.
An update to my previous post, surveying the 2016 Hugo votes in viction categories published by bloggers. I think that one of the categories has a very clear winner. It's also clear that there is a serious Rabid Puppy attempt to generate a block vote, with two other bloggers (and who knows how many others) following the lead set by Vox Day (whose post I missed in my previous roundup).

Best Short Story

"Cat Pictures Please" has extended its lead, with literally twice as many votes as the rest combined.

“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer: 19½ Read more...Collapse )
No Award: 6 Read more...Collapse )
Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle: 3 Read more...Collapse )
“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon: 1 Read more...Collapse )
“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao: ½ Read more...Collapse )
“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris: 0

Best Novelette

"Obits" has overtaken "And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead" for second place, partly due to the Puppy vote.

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu: 14½ Read more...Collapse )
“Obits” by Stephen King: 8 Read more...Collapse )
“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander: 7½ Read more...Collapse )
No Award: 1 Read more...Collapse )
“Flashpoint: Titan” by Cheah Kai Wai: 0
“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke: 0

Best Novella

Binti has extended its lead as well, but Penric's Demon has a good second place (with Puppy help).

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor: 15 Read more...Collapse )
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold: 8 Read more...Collapse )
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson: 4 Read more...Collapse )
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds: 2 Read more...Collapse )
The Builders by Daniel Polansky: 0

Best Novel

Brandon Kempner predicts that Uprooted will win. It also has Puppy support. However, The Fifth Season has extended its lead in my survey. Down the table, Seveneves has overtake Ancillary Mercy for third place.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: 10⅓ Read more...Collapse )
Uprooted by Naomi Novik: 6⅓ Read more...Collapse )
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson: 4 Read more...Collapse )
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: 3⅓ Read more...Collapse )
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher: 0

Unfortunately I'll be on the road from Thursday to Sunday next week, so I probably won't be able to post my usual instant analysis of Hugo and Retro-Hugo results. Y'all have fun with out me, you hear?


A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

Second paragraph of third chapter:
"They was up here, bold as brass, on Manor parkland, the exact same spot they was last time, proud of that clump of old pines."
I read a lot of John Le Carré as a teenager and in my early twenties; it was quite good preparation for the work I subsequently went on to do, though more in terms of preparing myself to meet the mindset of those who think they are doing their best for their country and find themselves questioning their own motivation. I suspect that his portrayal of inner Cold War circles in London, Bonn and elsewhere rang true for those who were there at the time. It is probably fifteen years since I last read one of his novels (I don't seem to have blogged any of them here).

I'm sorry to say that I felt that A Delicate Truth missed the target. It's a story about loyal upper middle class chaps who find that they are able to blow open a fatally bungled New Labour security mission in Gibraltar, and eventually do so. The upper middle class chaps seemed to me rather too noble in their motivations; the non-middle class characters were there for comic relief or moral lessons; more particularly, the Foreign Office as portrayed here is the powerful intellectual machine of former years, not the hollowed-out, demoralised institution I know today, that has now had the ultimate double humiliation of its most important tasks being given to newly invented ministries and then Boris Johnson being put in charge of the rest. Also, coming from where I do, it's odd not to see any reference to previous controversial Gibraltar events. The author is now well into his 80s, so it's understandable that he may be losing his touch; I should revisit some of the classics of earlier years.

This was the top remaining non-sff fiction book recommended by you guys at the end of last year. Next on that list is Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin.

A partial defence of Jeremy Corbyn

Owen Smith, the anti-immigration candidate who has risen without trace to challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership, has been making hay with this apparent contradiction between Corbyn's current and past statements:

I think I've made it clear that I am not a Corbyn fan. However, it's clear to me that when he said "Article 50 has to be invoked now" on 24 June, he meant "We are now in a situation where Article 50 has to be invoked at some point", and did not think that he was calling for the immediate invocation of Article 50.

It was incompetent of him to express himself in the way that he did, and incompetent not to clarify as rapidly as possible with his real view (whatever that may be) when it became clear that his words were being interpreted in the form that they came out of his mouth rather than the form they had had in his head before he spoke. He expressed himself poorly on the morning after a sleepless night, and failed to absorb any speaking points which might or might not have been prepared for him by party staff. A competent leader would not have made that mistake in the first place, or would have rapidly corrected by scheduling a major interview to set the record straight (and journalists would have been cutting each others' throats to get that interview). But it's a mistake rather than equivocation.

It was a very big mistake, because both the MPs who I linked to in my previous post saw this very statement as effectively the final straw. (Thangam Debbonnaire: "On the day after the referendum he asked for an early Brexit... That was the tipping point for me". Lilian Greenwood: "we heard Jeremy calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50. Without any discussion with the Shadow Cabinet or the Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party... How can that be right?")

For those who had worked closely with him, and who would theoretically have been among those populating the ministerial benches of a Corbyn-led government, it seemed entirely in character for Corbyn to have suddenly adopted a new policy position on a crucial issue of national importance without preparing colleagues for it (never mind consulting them), rather than considering the possibility that he might have misspoken - a possibility that I haven't even seen his supporters raising. It seems that Corbyn's poorly chosen "now" triggered the mass resignations from the shadow cabinet of the following couple of days, and thus was the spark that exploded the current leadership crisis (which looks likely to continue for at least twelve months after Corbyn trounces Smith in the coming ballot).

Needless to say, my analysis doesn't change my view about the urgency for Labour to get a competent leader. For me this isn't about policy at all (there seems little to choose between the two candidates, and where I can discern a difference I generally feel closer to Corbyn's position), it's about two of the most basic political leadership skills: communicating clearly and consistently, and building a good team around you which may well include those who have not always supported you. Corbyn is deeply incompetent on both counts, and the Labour Party and the British political system need and deserve better. The problem is, I'm not convinced that a better option is currently available.

Saturday Reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
Merchanter's Luck, by C.J. Cherryh
The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro

Last books finished
Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, by Hugh Lofting
Drama and Delight: The Life of Verity Lambert, by Richard Marson
The Host, by Peter Emshwiller
Ghastly Beyond Belief, eds. Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman
Short Trips: Seven Deadly Sins, ed. David Bailey

Last week's audios
The Black Hole, by Simon Guerrier
The Isos Network, by Nicholas Briggs

Next books
The Last Theorem, by Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl
Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment, by Bryan Talbot
Atom Bomb Blues, by Andrew Cartmel

Books acquired in last week
SPQR, by Mary Beard
To Lie with Lions, by Dorothy Dunnett
The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham
City of Soldiers: A Year of Life, Death and Survival in Afghanistan, by Kate Fearon
Galactic Girl, by Fiona Richmond

Three Arthur C. Clarke novels

I picked these up as an omnibus dubbed The Space Trilogy, though in fact they are not even slightly linked narratives which take place in different versions of the near future. They are a good reminder of the strengths and also the limitations of the Good Old Days. As I've said before, Clarke was one of my formative influences as a teenager, and it's nice to report that his work holds up reasonably well under a more sceptical adult gaze, despite the scarcity of women and the complete lack of non-white characters (which Clarke corrected later in his career).

Islands in the Sky

Second paragraph of third chapter:
For the first time, I turned to see what Commander Doyle had been doing during the crisis. To my astonishment, he was still sitting quietly at his desk. What was more, there was a smile on his face, and a stop-watch in his hand. A dreadful suspicion began to creep into my mind, a suspicion that became a certainty in the next few moments. The others were also staring at him, and there was a long, icy silence. Then Norman coughed, and very ostentatiously rubbed his elbow where he had bruised it against the wall. If he could have managed a limp under zero gravity, I'm sure he'd have done so as he went back to his desk. When he reached there, he relieved his feelings by grabbing the elastic band that held his writing pad in place, pulling it away and letting it go with a "Twack!" The commander continued to grin.
I had read this before, long ago, and it remains good wholesome stuff, with boys becoming men in space: our protagonist gets to stay in the big low-orbit space station, where the entire crew appear to be English and male, and experience a few other adventures but also learn some important lessons about life and about engineering (though nothing much about other matters, the only women in space being an actor making a movie in orbit and the members of a friendly family of Mars colonists). The most striking difference for me between Clarke's 1952 future and what has actually happened is that the cost of space flight has proven to be so high that economies of scale have pushed us much more to unmanned spacecraft and also to international collaboration than he anticipated, though I am sure he approved of both developments. It's interesting that Clarke's Wikipedia entry has forgotten this novel completely; I hadn't.

The Sands of Mars

Second paragraph of third chapter:
It was very disconcerting, at least to an inhabitant of Earth, to see two moons in the sky at once. But there they were, side by side, both in their first quarter, and one about twice as large as the other. It was several seconds before Gibson realized that he was looking at Moon and Earth together - and several seconds more before he finally grasped that the smaller and more distant crescent was his own world.
Now this, slightly to my surprise, was a Clarke novel that I definitely had not read before - and I thought I had raided the Belfast library system of its entire stock of his works when I was a teenager. Though bound second in my omnibus volume, it was Clarke's first published novel, dating from 1951. It's set a few years after the establishment of a Mars colony; the journalist protagonist (who is also an sf novelist) is being sent as what we'd now call an embedded member of the team, to write up what is going on in humanity's new outpost; the details of how journalism is technically done have dated far more than the rest of the book - there is a loving detailed description of a fax machine, an unimaginable technological advance in 1951, archaic for us in 2016. It's also a rare case of Clarke attempting to inject some emotional energy into his story, with one of the crew members turning out to be the protagonist's long-lost biological son, who then falls in love with the only girl on Mars; characteristically, having laid out the situation, the author doesn't dwell on it (and didn't really try this kind of narrative trick again in his career). He's on much more comfortable political ground when the discovery of a new form of Martian life upsets the balance of relations between the Martian base and its Earth master's, though here again his viewpoint is firmly rooted in what's good for the human colonists rather than the indigenous Martians. Still, I enjoyed it, and I'm surprised that this took me decades to track down.


Second paragraph of third chapter:
He had made mistakes before—but this time, surely, there could be no doubt. The facts were undisputed, the calculation trivial—the answer awe-inspiring. Far out in the depths of space, a star had exploded with unimaginable violence. Wheeler looked at the figures he had jotted down, checked them for the tenth time, and reached for the phone.
This 1955 novel did disappoint me a bit. It's the story of a counterespionage accountant on a lunar observatory at a moment of interplanetary conflict between Earth and The Rest Of The Solar System; obviously the Moon becomes a critical location in that conflict (and equally obviously there are Cold War parallels in the author's mind). There are some vivid observations of base life in the observatory (where again all the staff are white men) and the high-tech battle at the climax of the plot is well described. But otherwise the whole thing is a bit subdued, and the framing narrative of the protagonist's mission gets a particularly unconvincing resolution.

This was both the top unread book that I acquired in 2014, and my top unread sf book. Next on the former list is The Collected Stories Of Arthur C. Clarke; next on the latter is Merchanters Luck, by C.J. Cherryh.

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