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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. Vaighan and Cliff Chiang.

Interesting Links for 23-08-2016


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

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.
Second paragraph of third story ("Half a Grapefruit"):
There were four large clean windows along the wall. There were new fluorescent lights. The class was Health and Guidance, a new idea. Boys and girls mixed until after Christmas, when they got on to Family Life. The teacher was young and optimistic. She wore a dashing red suit that flared out over the hips. She went up and down, up and down the rows, making everybody say what they had for breakfast, to see if they were keeping Canada's Food Rules.
I've been raving here about the short fiction of Canada's Nobel laureate, mostly set in small town Ontario, usually in collections without a linking theme. But this book (originally published in Canada as Who Do You Think You Are?) is a little different - a sequence of stories about stepmother and stepdaughter Flo and Rose (more Rose than Flo), a couple of which ended up in the Collected Stories volume that I read earlier this year. It won the Governor-General's Award in Canada and is the only short story collection ever to have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 1980; William Golding's Rites of Passage won). The pace is slow and considered - on the whole these are accounts not of specific incidents but of life choices and changes. Flo never leaves the village where they come from; Rose goes to university, gets married, divorced, becomes mildly famous, has various relationships and eventually returns. For me the two standout stories were "Mischief" and "Simon's Luck", as Rose becomes herself again after the end of her marriage, but I see other reviewers preferring the beginning and end of the book. Anyway, once again tremendously engaging, absorbing and convincing.

This was both the top unread book by a woman and the top unread non-genre fiction book on my shelves, as measured by LibraryThing ownership. Next in the former category is Brother and Sister, by Joanna Trollope; next in the latter is The Dinner, by Hermann Koch.

King John

King John was not a good man —
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air —
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.


Interesting Links for 19-08-2016

What EPH would have meant in practice

MidAmeriCon II, this year's WorldCon now in full swing in Kansas City, has published a retrospective count of the Hugo nominations of the last two years as they would have been if the proposed new EPH system had been implemented. This is to an extent a counterfactual exercise - particularly for last year, when a number of finalists withdrew precisely because of the success of the slates. But no such comparison can ever be perfect. The reported effect of EPH on the final ballot (I'm not looking at the long-lists here) would have been as follows:

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There is a lot to think about here. It's clear that EPH in 2015 would have given a more diverse ballot, and would have provided two non-slate candidates in four of the five categories where voters No Awarded the slates. But applied to a "normal year", we actually lose a finalist who won; and for the lower-intensity Retro Hugos, the edge effects get a bit unpredictable.

Dave McCarty, Hugo Admnistrator both this year and in 2014, comments in the paper: "The changes to the Ballot and Long list are not easily verified and for people reviewing the detailed results at the end the only way to check that the process is working correctly would require access to secret nomination data and significant time. The difficulty in verification means that to check any result requires time which is NOT available to award administrators when it is time to close the nominating and prepare for the Ballot announcement. These are significant hurdles for a process that is generally designed to be open and democratic."

I sympathise, and I also have a more basic concern, which is that EPH (which seemed to me like a good idea when it was first proposed) is fundamentally designed to address last year's problem. On Sunday we will find out what difference it would have made this year. But as Hugo administrator for Worldcon 75, my personal concern is next year, and I guess if I were at the Business Meeting, I would need to be convinced that it is the right answer at this time. Of course, if the Business Meeting does ratify it this weekend, I'll duly implement it regardless of my own views.

Edited to add: I've been reflecting on this a bit more, after being reminded over on File 770 that the only change EPH would have made in 1984 would have been to drop a woman (Sherri S Tepper) from the Campbell ballot.

The changes it would have made in 2014 would have been to drop a woman in favour of a man for Best Editor Short Form, to drop a woman and a man and bring in a different man for Best Professional Artist, and to drop both the actual winner and another podcast run by a woman and a man from Best Fancast.

Admittedly it's a small sample, but I don't really like what I am seeing of EPH's effects on the diversity of the ballot in "normal" years. However I have to concede that it would have replaced that embarrassingly bad Ray Bradbury story with one by Helen Simpson on the Retro Hugo ballot.

Merchanter's Luck, by C.J. Cherryh

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Sandor reached and put the interior lights on, and Lucy’s surroundings acquired some cheer and new dimensions. Rightward, the corridor to the cabins glared with what had once been white tiles—bare conduits painted white like the walls; and to the left another corridor horizoned up the curve, lined with cabinets and parts storage. Aft of the bridge and beyond the shallowest of arches, another space showed, reflected in the idle screens of vacant stations, bunks in brown, worn plastic, twelve of them, that could be set manually for the pitch at dock. Their commonroom, that had been. Their indock sleeping area, living quarters, wardroom—whatever the need of the moment. He set Lucy’s autopilot, unbelted and eased himself out of the cushion: that was enough to get himself a stiff fine if station caught him at it, moving through the vicinity of a station with no one at controls.
Don't hate me, but I have often found C.J. Cherryh's work difficult to engage with. (I have similar problems with John Crowley and M. John Harrison.) I bought this at Eastercon to give her another try, having rather bounced off both Downbelow Station, to which this is a sequel, and Cyteen a few years back. I'm afraid this didn't work for me either; I appreciate the tightness of the prose, but I lost track of the plot early on and could not work out why I should care much about the characters. Lesson learned, I guess.

This was both my top unread sf book and top unread book by a woman (as measured by LibraryThing popularity). Next on the former list is The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, next on the latter The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (which was already at the top of the pile).
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).

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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.

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