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Interesting Links for 09-07-2016

The Commissioner, by Stanley Johnson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Before he set out for Cologne, Morton spoke to Sir Oliver Passmore on the telephone to ask for any further news or indication of what to expect. Passmore chose his words with care. He had been choosing his words with care for most of his life. 'We're not absolutely sure what Kramer intends,' Passmore told him. 'He may try to do what his predecessor, Jacques Delors did, when he was President-designate back in 1985.'

This is another real political treasure of times past, a thriller written by none less than the father of Boris Johnson, himself a former MEP and Commission official who is now one of the best known environmentalists on the political Right in England. The book was written in 1987, set in 1989; I must have read it in the mid-90s, when I was politically engaged in Belfast, though I missed the 1998 film starring John Hurt. (This is the second book I have read recently which was made into a film starring John Hurt.)

It's a rather moral story. James Morton, a Tory MP with a second-rate job but a first-rate majority, is sent by Margaret Thatcher to Brussels as the new British Commissioner. He struggles with the unglamorous position of Commissioner for Industry, but finds himself in the middle of a massive scandal involving the chemical industry and environmental damage, facing off against vested interests in Germany, Britain and the Commission itself, and also in a personal dilemma between his American wife and his Portuguese colleague. The ending turns out rather ambiguous, with good and bad guys both claiming their share of the spoils.

It's surprising, thirty years on, to remember that there was a time when a Conservative writer - a member of the Johnson family, no less - was capable of nuanced commentary about European politics (though I fear not about the Irish). I appreciate now, more than I did before I came to Belgium, the touches of local colour - Morton and his wife move to Rhode-St-Génèse, which was where we first lived when we moved here in 1999; La Maison du Cygne and Comme Chez Soi are still reputedly the best restaurants in town; there is still something of an old-guard clubbish elite around the Place Royale/Sablon where occasionally I get invited to stand outside and look in the window (one missing venue is the Egmont Palace). It's an account by someone who knows and loves the town.

Though much has also changed. There are now 28 Commissioners rather than 12; more importantly, Morton's successor, the Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, has quasi-judicial powers to prevent dubious mergers without anyone else's permission, rather than needing to wage the political campaign that Morton gets tied up in. Also, as I commented in my last review, it's impossible to imagine a romance between two high-profile political figures going unnoticed in the age of the 24 hour news cycle and the Internet.

Still, it's worth getting hold of, if you can, to take your mind back to the late 1980s, a time which, though we did not realise it, was a much more innocent age than our own.

Interesting Links for 08-07-2016

Dark Horse, by Fletcher Knebel

Second paragraph of chapter three:
On the same October Thursday the Houston Oilers toiled in practice in the nearby Astrodome, the American balance-of-payments deficit soared to a twenty-year high, three more corporations decided to flee New York City and a man in Boston died of mercury poisoning after eating codfish cakes.
This book is going for a penny plus postage on the online used book store of your choice, and I recommend you buy it now before the rush later this year. Written in 1972, anticipating the 1976 election, it concerns the story of Eddie Quinn, an obscure former Congressman and New Jersey Turnpike Commissioner who is unexpectedly thrust to national prominence when the failing Republican presidential candidate suddenly dies three weeks before the election and the party reaches desperately for a replacement; nobody, including the colourless Vice-Presidential candidate, wants to go down in history as the loser, and Quinn is good-looking, doesn't drink or smoke, and is not known for dangerous views.

Although the Democrats are well in the lead (with an intellectual Methodist state governor rather reminiscent of their real 1976 candidate, Jimmy Carter), Quinn launches a populist rearguard campaign, promising tax cuts, an end to the military draft for young people, a system of ombudsmen, and much else, which instantly earns him the displeasure of the Republican grandees (particularly the one who is nominally married to his lover) but catches the interest of increasing numbers of voters, leading to a dramatic conclusion to the election.

There are several particularly intense incidents: Quinn's opening speech, where he attacks vested political interests like the ones that have just nominated him; his gathering of a diverse group of trusted advisers; a confrontation with black radicals in Quinn's home town (which sounds a bit like my grandmother's home town of Plainfield); and a fatal car accident which Quinn refuses to allow his team to cover up. The author's tone towards lefties and feminists is a bit wearyingly snide (not to mention New Jersey, "a corridor of swampy weather and toadstool habitations that called itself a state"), but apart from that it's a real page-turner.

Of course, a book like this is always going to be partial wish-fulfillment. (See my list of Pope books; was Hadrian the Seventh the orignial Mary Sue?) But Knebel mounts a sharp critique from the liberal Right (a species that barely exists these days) of conventional American political wisdom, and challenges the reader to wonder how change might come? Things have now got worse, of course; I strongly recommend this recent article from The Atlantic, How American Politics Went Insane for a review of what has gone wrong, mostly since this book was written.

Apart from the death of the liberal Right, there are other major differences between how politics happened in 1972 and how it happens today. The most striking is that there was no twenty-four hour news cycle. The press corps did indeed follow the candidates around, but they were print journalists with their early evening deadlines; TV was much more cumbersome and had to be carefully arranged in advance. Minor gaffes by Quinn and his campaign staff are laughed off in a cordial way by all concerned, rather than becoming the focus of faux outrage by media talking heads. There is no chance that a candidate's love affair with a married Congresswoman could evade scrutiny today for as long as Quinn gets away with it in this book. (There is a sub-plot with a sex tape of which there is only one copy.)

Another point that hit me was that the only mention of TV debates is a brief reference to Kennedy/Nixon in 1960, with the strong implication tha that experiment would never be repeated. Debates are now of course an immovable part of the process, but we tend to forget that rather than 1960 that has only been the case since 1976, when Gerald Ford killed his own chances of re-election by mis-speaking about Eastern Europe. (Ford, who was the 1976 Republican candidate in real life, was also something of a dark horse given that in 1972 he was the fading House Minority Leader).

It's irresistible to compare the fictional 1976 scenario of Dark Horse with the real situation forty years after, where one insurgent from outside the party leadership came within a few hundred delegates of capturing the Democratic nomination, and another insurgent actually is the Republican nominee. Knebel's Quinn is closer in policy to Trump than Sanders, but has several redeeming points: he values intellectual input and thoughtful policy-making, he instinctively grasps the importance of reaching much wider than the white male demographic and challenges his own party on race and gender issues (even if he doesn't end up where we might want him to), and he doesn't tell lies. Immigration is a second or third generation issue, and the terrorists are domestic insurgents neutralised by negotiation. I would probably still have supported Quinn's Democratic opponent if I'd had a vote in this fictional 1976, but I would have found it a tough choice. Read the book for yourself, and see what you think.

Frankenstein Unbound, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Where were you yesterday, I wonder? The ranch, with all its freight of human beings - in which category I include those supernatural beings, our grandchildren - spent yesterday and much of the day before in a benighted bit of somewhere that I presume was medieval Europe! It was our first taste of a major Timeslip. (How easily one takes up the protective jargon - a Timeslip sounds no worse than a landslide. But you know what I mean - a fault in the spatial infrastructure.)

I had not actually read this before - but I had long ago listened to a 1978 commercially released cassette recording of Brian Aldiss actually reading the book. The tapes together were only 2h42m, so it must have been somewhat abridged (though the book is anyway only 216 pages).

Aldiss is at his best when he examines fragmentation and transition. (That's why the first two Helliconia books are much better than the third.) Here, his protagonist, Joe Bodenland, is yanked from the world of 2020, recovering from a global conflict where space and time have come adrift, and deposited in Switzerland in 1816, in both the world of Mary Shelley and the Villa Deodati and the world of Frankenstein's Geneva which she invented. Bodenland weaves in and out of both stories, making love to Mary, pursuing the monster, ending in the middle of nowhere anticipating doom. Given Aldiss's own reverence for Shelley as the originator of science fiction (two hundred years ago this summer) there's a lot going on here, and I don't feel fully able to unpack it, but I really liked it.

The 1990 film starred John Hurt as the protagonist (renamed Buchanan, which may be easier to say but has less linguistic resonance), Bridget Fonda as Mary Shelley and Raul Julia as Frankenstein. I may even try and watch it some time.

This came to the top of my list of sf books recommended by you guys. Next on that list was Alif the Unseen, next after that is Ghastly Beyond Belief, edited by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman.

The latest twist

There is now a perverse incentive for May to organise for 40 of her core supporters to vote for Gove on Thursday. It would certainly exclude the much more threatening Leadsom from the party members' ballot.
Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Doctor was making his way around, prodding at things with the tip of his umbrella, wiping his finger along the pipes and grimacing at the grease. He’d not been very forthcoming about where they had landed. All Ace knew is that it was London and the 1950s.

This is the culmination of the arc of Seventh Doctor novels by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry, the previous stories being Illegal Alien, Matrix, Storm Harvest and Prime Time. I really enjoyed this, as I really enjoyed them all, and I've realised that this sequence is one of the unsung successes of Who spinoff literature.

The story is suitably complex; the Doctor investigating Ace's murder, even though she is still alive; confused astronauts arriving from another timeline; cyber-technology and giant ants infesting London. There is sensawunda and emotional intensity. There is homage to Quatermass (and perhaps one or two Tuckerisms). I think I couldn't recommend this to readers, even Who fans, who had not read the previous four in this mini-series, but I would warmly recommend reading the whole lot.

Next up in this sequence: The Algebra of Ice, by Lloyd Rose.
I nominated three works for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) in the 1941 Retro Hugos - Pinocchio, The Thief of Bagdad and Fantasia. All three of these made it to the final ballot - rather better than my usual strike rate! - but for some reason Pinocchio has been placed in the Short Form rather than Long Form category, even though two of the Long Form nominees (One Million B.C. and Dr Cyclops) are actually shorter.

Anyway, it's (mostly) a good list, representing a decent spread of what could be considered genre film in 1940 - the nominations process doing what it is supposed to do and giving us a wide field to choose from. I confess that I've only watched my two nominees in full, but I feel I dipped into the others sufficiently to establish an order of preference.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) for 1941 Retro Hugos: The Thief of BaghdadCollapse )

Best Novel (1941/2016) / Best Novella (1941/2016) / Best Novelette (1941/2016) / Best Short Story (1941/2016) / Best Related Work (2016) / Bet Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) / Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) (1941/2016) / Art categories (1941/2016) / John W. Campbell Award
When I reviewed the finalists for Best Novelette, I queried the inclusion of “Darker Than You Think” by Jack Williamson as it seemed to me too long for the category. This year's Hugo Administrators have concurred, and the story has been replaced by "Vault of the Beast" by A.E. van Vogt, which you will easily find in the widely available collection edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, and published under three different titles: The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 2, 1940 (1979); Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (second half, 1983); and Great Science Fiction Stories of 1940 (2002). It includes also two of the other novelette finalists (the two that aren't by Heinlein) and one of the short story finalists (Asimov's "Strange Playfellow").

"Vault of the Beast" is actually rather similar to "It!" by Theodore Sturgeon; I'm marking it down slightly for dodgy gender stereotypes, but still above No Award. So my revised ballot in this category is:

6) “Blowups Happen” by Robert A. Heinlein
5) No Award
4) "Vault of the Beast", by A.E. van Vogt
3) “The Roads Must Roll” by Robert A. Heinlein
2) “It!” by Theodore Sturgeon
1) “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates

For completeness, the second paragraph of "Vault of the Beast" is:
It crept along the corridor of the space freighter, fighting the terrible urge of its elements to take the shape of its surroundings. A gray blob of disintegrating stuff, it crept, it cascaded, it rolled, flowed, dissolved, every movement an agony of struggle against the abnormal need to become a stable shape.
The full text is available here.

The Hidden War, by Michael Armstrong

Second paragraph of third chapter:

"-back! Go back, go away, do not go down there, you must help me, go back!"

I gave up on this one after fifty pages; it's a rather routine mil-sf story about a soldier with wonderful technological device working to overthrow the invader, clunky in style, and obvious where it was going from the first few chapters.

Was the unread sf book which had been longest on my shelves. Next on that list is The Host, by Peter Emshwiller.

Interesting Links for 03-07-2016


Saturday reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, by Cliff Stoll

Last books finished
Dark Horse, by Fletcher Knebel
The Commissioner, by Stanley Johnson
Peter & Max, by Bill Willingham
The Unwritten Vol. 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words, by Mike Carey
The Mary-Sue Extrusion, by Dave Stone
The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss
Fanny Kemble and the lovely land, by Constance Wright
Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury, ed. Paul Cornell

Next books
Hamilton: The Revolution, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel, by Jeff Kinney
The Algebra of Ice, by Lloyd Rose

Interesting Links for 02-07-2016

The David Tennant / Catherine Tate partnership was a particularly good pairing in the history of Who (and actually there have been very few obviously bad pairings). It's weird to think that that was already back in 2008, longer ago than the entire Tom Baker era lasted, or as long ago as any two other Doctors from Old Who combined.

And Big Finish, hurrah! have brought them back - just for three 75-minute adventures, plus a bonus disc of extra interviews with cast and crew, but gosh it's entertaining. If you're nostalgic for the days when Bertie handed over to Brian and Boris defeated Ken, that brief moment of time just before the Great Crash hit us, you'll love these.

Technophobia, by Matt Fitton, is a decent re-introduction of the characters, visiting a contemporary England where the population has become completely deluded about their own best interests, a scenario therefore with no contemporary relevance whatsoever. There is some particularly sparkling Doctor/Donna dialogue, and an overall plot that is fairly standard but executed with grace. Good guest cast includes Rachael Sterling as the potential villainness, and Niky Wardley as Donna's fellow temp Bex.

Jenny Colgan, who has written three New Who novels as well as her best-selling other output, makes what I think is her audioplay debut with Time Reaver, a story where the focus is on one weird organism that has the ability to change the subjective passage of time, and how it is used for good and for ill (mostly for ill) by the human societies that encounter it. It's a slightly flaky scenario, lifted to impressive heights by a strong ending and especially David Tennant.

Catherine Tate gets her turn in Death and the Queen by James Goss, where Donna Noble appears to be on the verge of achieving the fairy tale marriage that she was deprived of in The Christmas Invasion. As my regular reader knows, I rate James Goss as one of the very best Who writers working at present. I don't think that he's quite at the top of his game here, but Catherine Tate definitely is, and sparks off David Tennant and her romantic interest Blake Ritson very compellingly.

All in all, well worth getting hold of.

Interesting Links for 01-07-2016

June books

Interesting Links for 30-06-2016

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Un jour, une colonie mystérieuse partit de l'Espagne et vint aborder à la langue de terre où elle est encore aujourd'hui. Elle arrivait on ne savait d'où et parlait une langue inconnue. Un des chefs, qui entendait le provençal, demanda à la commune de Marseille de leur donner ce promontoire nu et aride, sur lequel ils venaient, comme les matelots antiques, de tirer leurs bâtiments. La demande lui fut accordée, et trois mois après, autour des douze ou quinze bâtiments qui avaient amené ces bohémiens de la mer, un petit village s'élevait.
One day, a mysterious group of colonists set out from Spain and landed on this spit of land, where it still resides today. No one knew where they had come from or what language they spoke. One of the leaders, who understood Provençal, asked the commune of Marseille to give them this bare and arid promontory on to which, like the sailors of Antiquity, they had drawn up their boats. The request was granted and, three months later, a little village grew up around the twelve or fifteen boats that brought these gypsies of the sea.
(In the French original, "bâtiments" in the last sentence is surely a mistake for "bâteaux"?)

I see that it took me roughly a month to read to the end of this - it has 1244 pages of narrative, densely action-packed. I'd read it before of course, once as a teenager and once as an undergraduate, so that must have been at least twenty-five years ago. But it's great stuff. The start is a bit wobbly as we get the set-up of the happy Edmond Dantès, on the verge of a loving marriage and successful career, brought down by envious rivals; but I think from the moment that Dantès is arrested, the story picks up a momentum that it never again loses despite the tortuous tales of complex vengeance, inflicted on the next generation. Dantès / Monte Cristo's personal tragedy and retribution are beautifully linked in with French politics, culture and science - Chapter 61, in which Monte Cristo suborns a semaphore operator, is a great circumstantial description of the latest communications technology.

The underlying theme is filial loyalty, and you don't have to look too far into Dumas' own life to see where that came from, and justice, though in the end Monte Cristo does temper his vengeance with some mercy, and there's an early hint that justice may not be all it's cracked up to be in the gruesome account of an execution in Rome. There is also some illicit sex; the affair between Baroness Danglars and Gérard de Villefort is shameful and engenders one of the less plausible plot twists (and that's saying something), though the obviously lesbian relationship between Eugénie Danglars and Louise d'Armilly gets more sympathetic treatment. (Incidentally, it's never said explicitly, but Eugénie narrowly escapes marriage to her long lost brother, her mother's son by de Villefort.) There's even some Balkan politics, with the entirely historical fall of Ali Pasha of Ioannina turning out to have a key role in the back story. There are so many brilliant set-pieces - Albert de Morcerf's encounter with the bandits, old de Villefort revealing the truth behind the death of General d'Épinay, the disgrace of Count de Morcerf in the House of Peers - that you keep turning the many many pages. Very glad that this has not lost its attraction over the decades.

(Incidentally I'm tallying Dumas as a writer of colour.)

This came to the top of my reading list as the book in my catalogue with most LibraryThing owners that I had not yet reviewed online (not counting Watership Down, which I am currently reading at a chapter a week). Holes, by Louis Sachar, has now overtaken A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be next in the list.

Short Trips: 2040, ed. John Binns

Second paragraph of third story ("Thinking Warrior", by Huw Wilkins):
I chamber a smoke round and fire it up into the air to obscure the sniper's view, then sweep the blank-fronted tower block with the microwave radar.
Another of the Big Finish collections of Doctor Who short stories, this time all set in the year 2040 (an anagram of the year of writing, 2004, though the link is also made with the Doctor's TARDIS being a Type 40). I didn't think this was one of the more successful collections, with the linking narrative between the stories (about the invasion of Earth by an entity called the Ethereal) seeming to get in the way a bit. But there were a couple that I really enjoyed - "Artificial Intelligence" by Andy Campbell, a retake of Flowers for Algernon, and "Anteus" by Rebecca Levene featuring a fractured future London which seemed all too much in tune with this month's events.

Next in sequence is Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury, edited by Paul Cornell. I have realised that because I'm reading these at one a month rather than the original publication rate, I'll be reaching several Christmassy volumes at non-Christmassy times of the year.

Interesting Links for 28-06-2016

I made only one nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) for the 1941 Retro Hugos. It was:
Weltraumschiff 1 startet

Despite what it says on YouTube, this was apparently made in 1940, not 1937. I doubt that many others nominated it though.

I also nominated Pinocchio in Long Form. It's 88 minutes long, which is just under the cutoff, but I (and several other voters whose votes were posted on File 770) felt that it belonged in the Long Form category. The Hugo administrators took a different view, so it's my one nominee on the Short Form final ballot.

My vote is as follows:
Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) for 1941 Retro Hugos: The Invisible Man ReturnsCollapse )

My nominations for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) for the 2016 Hugos were unashamedly one-sided. They were:

Doctor Who: Face The Raven
Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died
Doctor Who: Heaven Sent
Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song
Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion

One of these made the final ballot, which is about my average.

I've tallied results from the File 770 straw poll, which showed the following as favoured nominations in this category by those who contributed:

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (8)
Jessica Jones: AKA Smile (8)
Person of Interest: If-Then-Else (8)
The Expanse: CQB (8)
Kung Fury (5)
Uncanny Valley (5)
Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song (4)
Game of Thrones: Hardhome (4)
Marvel's Agent Carter: Snafu (4)
Sense8: What's Going On (4)
Welcome to Night Vale: Triptych (4)
Archer: Drastic Voyage 1+2 (3)
Rick and Monty: Total Rickall (3)
Welcome to Night Vale: The Librarians (3)
11 more with 2 votes, another 79 with 1 vote not listed hereCollapse )

Two of the top four in the File 770 list did indeed make it to the final ballot. The other three finalists are slate nominations, none of which got a single nomination from the File 770 readers who responded to the straw poll. I think it's pretty likely that both Person of Interest: If-Then-Else and The Expanse: CQB, as well as some other worthy candidate, were pushed off the ballot by slating.

My own vote is as follows:

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) for 2016 Hugos: Doctor Who: Heaven SentCollapse )

Anyway, some worthy nominees there and I hope also a couple of worthy winners.

Best Novel (1941/2016) / Best Novella (1941/2016) / Best Novelette (1941/2016) / Best Short Story (1941/2016) / Best Related Work (2016) / Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) (1941/2016) / Art categories (1941/2016) / John W. Campbell Award

Interesting Links for 27-06-2016

The Unicorn Hunt, by Dorothy Dunnett

Second paragraph of third chapter:
‘So where, you fortunate man, is your charming wife Gelis?’ asked Anselm Adorne, seating himself two places from Nicholas at Master Lamb’s table shortly afterwards. Behind them, Albany’s trumpeter let off a blast, and Julius, in the middle, began cheerfully to cut up his meat.
Fifth in the series of eight novels about Dunnett's fifteenth-century hero Claes van der Poele, now rebranded Nicolas de Fleury, on a canvas that takes us from a long first section in Scotland at the court of the young James III, to Cyprus, Alexandria and the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. I must confess that I felt Dunnett was not fully in control of her material here. The core of the narrative is the feuding between Claes on the one hand and his estranged wife Gelis and his secret father Simon de St. Pol on the other. I was not convinced by Gelis's means or motivation; her end game is not at all obvious, and she seems to have almost supernatural means of keeping Claes apart from his son and his treasure (and at one point his liberty in a gruesome torture scene). Claes meantime has acquired his own supernatural powers of divining the location of sought objects and people by pendulum - though this only works as effectively as the plot needs it to. The attention to local historical and geographical detail is still very worthwhile and engaging, but I hope the next book (which I have ordered, naturally) is more coherent.

This was the top book on my non-genre poll from the end of last year. Next on that list is A Delicate Truth, by John Le Carré.

Interesting Links for 26-06-2016

Saturday reading

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (a chapter a week)
Peter & Max, by Bill Willingham
The Mary-Sue Extrusion, by Dave Stone
The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

Last books finished
Loving the Alien, by Mike Tucker and Robert Perry
Frankenstein Unbound, by Brian W. Aldiss

Next books
The Unwritten Vol. 6: Tommy Taylor and the War of Words, by Mike Carey
Fanny Kemble and the Lovely land, by Constance Wright
Short Trips: A Christmas Treasury, edited by Paul Cornell

Books acquired in last week
American Gridlock: The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization, by James A. Thurber

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July 2016



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