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One of the less obscure novels of 1941, this concerns a survivor of a dying extraterrestrial race who comes to Earth and superintends the development of human civilzation over the millennia. There's a nice flashback technique between the world of today and the historical set-up, but it's a truly pulpy set of concepts, mishmashed together a bit chaotically. Those who are fans of Kuttner's work in general may be a bit more sympathetic to it than I am. 

Oblivion, by Dave Stone

A Bernice Summerfield novel, reuniting her with her ex-husband Jason and her New Adventures friends Chris and (from a younger part of her timeline) Roz, and the rather excellent shapeshifter Sgloomi Po. Apart from this last, however, not much of interest is done with this promising cast and the potentially interesting scenario of reality splintering into many possible futures. Appropriately enough, given the title, I find it quite difficult to remember anything that happened. 

Brussels report

I'm very grateful to all of you who have expressed concern about us in the last few days. In fact we live far enough outside Brussels that the situation had almost no impact on us, except that my visiting mother-in-law found it much easier than usual to make her train connections on Saturday night due to the lack of crowds. Our village is far from any place of current interest; yesterday I took B and her grandmother to the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Neerwinden, where we meditated on past conflicts and the origin of the poppy as their symbol.

I was luckier than a friend from England, who had chosen Saturday for a day trip to Europe's capital. He reported that it was "Quiet, but not OK. The closure of the metro didn't bother me - it's a compact place and I know my way around on foot. But what hasn't been as well publicised on the news is that all the museums and an awful lot of the shops were shut. Which was made worse by the rain, and then the snow and the near freezing temperatures. So not many places to shelter, not even City2 which they shuttered down at midday. Ho hum."

Today, I had little difficulty getting into Brussels; trains were delayed, but that is normal enough on the first cold day of winter. But I arrived to find the office two-thirds empty; those with children at school in Brussels, or dependent on cancelled public transport, or just not wanting to make the trip, were sensibly encouraged by our management to stay at home. The rest of us went out for a morale-boosting lunch, and afterwards I walked into the city centre for an errand. There was a more visible police presence around the Central Station, but more striking was the comparative absence of other people; it was like a wet Sunday in February. In the evening I counted myself lucky to get home smoothly - trains are now being cancelled due to staff staying home for whatever reason. Having grown up in Belfast in darker days, this is all tedious rather than frightening to me.

All non-essential meetings in the Brussels bubble have been cancelled for the next few days. The police who would normally show up to look like they were doing something now actually are doing something. Last Thursday I unexpectedly bumped into an old friend, the foreign minister of [redacted], on the street. I don't think we'll be seeing foreign ministers wandering around Brussels so casually for a while. Meanwhile we understand that the security forces are continuing their operations, though they have successfully persuaded social media users not to give blow-by-blow accounts of police movements but post cat pictures instead. I do hope that this turns out to be something more than security theatre to steady the nerves.

One of the winners of the current situation is the news website POLITICO.eu, who have run a series of incisive and insightful pieces starting (with eerie prescience) two days before the Paris attacks by interviewing the Belgian interior minister, excusing his inability to keep our country and our neighbours safe (it's well worth reading most of POLITICO's recent output). Well, maybe it will occur to voters in the next elections that if you support politicians who are intent on underfunding and undermining the institutions of the Belgian state (outlined in detail in this excellent piece by the excellent Kristof Clerix), there are associated costs to that support. Once the current security crisis is over, I hope that there will be a reckoning.

Somewhere! / هُناك, by Ibraheem Abbas

An sf novel by Saudi writer Ibraheem Abbas, which the author signed for me at Loncon last year. It's short and digestible, about a young man who finds himself in a Somewhere which could be a dream world, could be a virtual reality, could be time travel; it is rooted in contemporary online and gaming culture, yet also brings in certain important historical personalities (some European, one East Asian), all told in a breathless contemporary voice, full of exclamation marks. (Could have done with a little more editing for correct English.) I look forward to reading the other book I have by the same writer.

Links I found interesting for 23-11-2015

The Sword In The Stone won a convincing victory in the Best Novel category for last year's 1939 Retro Hugos. The Ill-Made Knight, which is the third part of The Once And Future King, will have it tougher this year - despite being in large part the basis for the musical Camelot, I think it's less well-known than the first part, and faces strong rivals with traditional fan appeal in Slan and Gray Lensman. It will, however, get one of my nominations and probably my vote. Years before The Mists of Avalon, White grappled with the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle and came up with his own solution, of real people trying on the whole to do the decent thing in a time of bitter conflict, to a certain extent making it up as they go along; drawing on Malory and Spenser and Tennyson, but also making the story his own. I think I first read it when I was thirteen, and had maybe reread it once in the subsequent 35 years, but I was pleased at how much of it seemed both familiar and fresh. Well worth your consideration.

Mysterious poem

A relative found this poem written inside the back cover of her copy of George Bernard Shaw's The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (and Some Lesser Tales), and wondered if anyone can identify its origin? There is no other inscription on or in the book.

Strangers all......
But to me
Must fall
Odd romances
Of words
and passions
and strange 
"Tis not all"
The Devil
"But more?"
I pray not......
To lose all
Till end of Tyme?


Sleepyhead, by Mark Billingham

I picked this up via BookMooch after it was picked for World Book Night four years ago, despite one disrecommendation, and have finally got around to reading it. It's a very gruesome crime novel, of a serial killer who is obsessed with our police detective hero and who attacks women to prove a point. It's well constructed - the love lives of the main characters become intertwined with the plot, and there is an elegantly constructed red herring. The murderer's modus operandi is very memorably horrible. Not wowed enough to seek out other Billingham novels but I won't ignore them if they fall in my path.

To The Slaughter, by Steve Cole

Penultimate book in the Eight Doctor Adventures range of novels, written (as the author explains in an afterword) to explain away a minor continuity error in Revenge of the Cybermen, but actually quite successful in its own terms as a story of grand redesign of parts of the Solar System for ostensibly aesthetic purposes that gets hijacked by several different groups with their own agendas, and a vehicle for the somewhat obscure companion Trix McMillan. Although the tone of the book is comedic for most of the story, Cole does manage to make the chaos and carnage wrought on the worlds he has created come across as really mattering - TV Who (both Old and New) sometimes seems to have a reset button after every alien invasion of Earth; it reminded me that he is one of the better Who writers - he hasn't done a Who novel since Sting of the Zygons in 2007, but has done several rather good Big Finish plays (as well as other work, of course).

Thursday reading

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 1, ed. von Dimpleheimer
The Battle for Gaul, by Julius Caesar

Last books finished
Sleepyhead, by Mark Billingham
The Ill-Made Knight, by T.H. White
Somewhere! / هُناك , by Ibraheem Abbas
Oblivion, by Dave Stone
A Million Years to Conquer, by Henry Kuttner
Monkey Planet, by Pierre Boulle
Twice in Time, by Manly Wade Wellman
[Doctor Who: The Glamour Chronicles] Deep Time, by Trevor Baxendale
North Wind, by Gwyneth Jones

Next books
The Invention of Happiness, by Brian W. Aldiss
Bits of Me are Falling Apart, by William Leith

Books acquired in last week
Twice in Time, by Manly Wade Wellman
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 1, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Short Fiction Eligible for the 1941 Retro-Hugos Vol 2, ed. von Dimpleheimer
Another of the books that I identified as potential Retro Hugo material, originally published in Spanish in 1940, by a protégé of Jorge Luis Borges (who contributed a foreword). I'm pretty sure that this is a novella. The English translation has 350-400 words per page, and of the 100 pages, several are taken up by Jorge Luis Borges' introduction and several more by Norah Borges' illustrations (see her map of the book's setting). So it's unlikely to be be over 40,000 words, and the same probably goes for the original Spanish text.

It's worth chasing down, as an example of surrealism meeting magical realism. The unnamed protagonist finds himself on a possibly deserted island, and becomes increasingly obsessed and frustrated by its inhabitants, who he can see perfectly well but is unable to interact with. The sinister scientist Morel appears to be behind it all. Like Kallocain, the story reflects on the surveillance society, though in a different and perhaps more modern way, tying in also fairly explicitly with the then-recent invention of television.

As with Kallocain, the (male) narrator's attempt to conduct a relationship with a woman under the new conditions is the emotional hook of the story - somewhat creepy rather than desperate here, which reduces one's sympathy for the central character. But the story itself kept my attention and will probably get one of my nominations for Best Novella.
I did not get on well with the only other Doris Lessing book I have read, The Grass is Singing, but I thought this was excellent - a short novel about a woman in her mid-40s who suddenly gets an opportunity to break away from her family and friends, and grabs it with both hands. I found the geographical and character descriptions excellent, and Kate's journey to freedom rather exhilarating. Recommended.

(Yes, I know that icon is Agatha Christie. Sorry.)

Links I found interesting for 17-11-2015

#RetroHugos1941 Kallocain, by Karin Boye

This is a short Swedish novel published in 1940, set in a near-future totalitarian state, where the narrator, Leo Kall, invents a drug that compels people to tell nothing but the truth. Naïvely committed to the regime, he observes its use to enforce thought control rather passively, but it all gets real when he starts to consider the drug's potential impact on his relationship with his wife.

It's an original theme, intensely and eloquently described, at reasonably short length (220 pages). I'm really surprised that I had not heard of it before I started my research into the sf of 1940 for next year's Retro Hugos. It seems to me to stand firmly in the tradition of Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Presumably the twin effects of it being in Swedish and by a woman meant that it was overlooked. The 2002 film Equilibrium picked up some of its ideas, as of course did Zelazny's Today We Choose Faces and the first episode of Blake's 7.

The whole thing can be read online here. I do hope that voters will give a nod to a Scandinavian writer in advance of Helsinki.
I read this as a teenager, and was hugely impressed by it. Growing up in the calcified conservative culture of Catholic Ulster, I felt a lot of sympathy for Heinlein's unsophisticated hero who realises gradually that those who claim to speak for God may actually be speaking for themselves, that a political reality can be deliberately constructed, and that girls are human beings too. Since the 1940 original text is eligible for next year's Retro Hugo for 1941, I returned to it with interest and a little trepidation. I must have been 15 or 16 when I first read it, two-thirds of my life ago; would it hold up?

And actually, yes it does. If anything, Heinlein's portrayal of a theocratic dictatorship ruling a dystopian future America seems a bit closer to the bone in 2015 than it did in 1983. (Though maybe that just reflects on my relative ignorance about the USA in the 1980s.) His thoughts about political messaging are pretty up to date as well, though of course the techniques turn out to be different. I was startled to read Ken MacLeod's assessment of Heinlein's importance to political SF in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, but he was absolutely right; particularly here in the early stages of his career.

Bill Paterson's article on If This Goes On— for the Heinlein Society goes into some detail about the differences between the 55,000 word version of the story, revised in 1953, that we now have access to (in Revolt in 2100 and The Past Through Tomorrow) and the 33,000 word original. The biggest difference is that Sister Maggie, the most interesting character in the revised version of the story, appears to be largely absent from the original version, where our hero ends up with Sister Judith in an epilogue. There is also apparently much less about the Freemasons, and a couple of odd plot adjustments - Judith is horrified, not by the Prophet's sexual advances but by his cynical approach to taxation; and the victorious rebels decide to go for mass hypnotic reorientation of the formerly subject population rather than rejecting the idea as they do in the revised version.

I don't know how easy it will be to get hold of the 1940 text. A couple of things are clear to me, however. First, it's definitely a novella for Retro Hugo purposes; even if it was marketed at the time as a novel, the 2016 rules are clear that 40,000 words is the cutoff and it's a long way short of that. Second, without having read the 1940 version, but bearing in mind what Patterson says about the differences between it and the 1953 version, it's a pretty strong contender and is likely to get one of my own nominations in the Best Novella category. (NB that Jamie Todd Rubin has read the original and found the first half better than the second.)

More thoughts on the eligible short fiction of 1940 in due course.
This missed getting on the Hugo shortlist this year by a single vote, or rather because the Puppies nominated a completely crap webcomic about zombies and 26 people nominated Saga without specifying which volume they were voting for. Having said that, volume 3 (which I enjoyed) did make it to the list and duly came second to Ms Marvel. This volume takes the relationship between the protagonists in a new and not very happy direction, while at the same time showing us the weird dynastic dynamics among their enemies and setting up for further developments.

Among the list of potential Best Graphic Novel nominees on the Hugo recommendations spreadsheet, the next volume, vol 5, is third in both Goodreads and LibraryThing ownership, behind only Ms Marvel vol 2 and The Sculptor. I'll get hold of it soon.

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

This is another brilliant collection of short stories by Canadian Nobel laureate Alice Munro, as usual grabbing you by the guts and concentrating character and plot into exquisitely distilled doses of everyday life. A lot of them seem to have been published first by the New Yorker and are still online there - I particularly commend Dimension and Free Radicals, which are both about death and murder but in very different ways. Well worth getting hold of.

Links I found interesting for 13-11-2015

Thursday reading

Sleepyhead, by Mark Billingham
The Ill-Made Knight, by T.H. White
Somewhere! / هُناك , by Ibraheem Abbas
Oblivion, by Dave Stone

Last books finished - a long list, augmented by the fact that I had nearly finished several on Thursday, had a long journey Friday, and many of these are short books anyway
The Quantum Archangel, by Craig Hinton
Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories vol 2, eds. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
The Sculptor, by Scott McCloud
Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree, by Ernest Bramah
Saga Volume 4, by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Clock Strikes Twelve And Other Stories, by H. Russell Wakefield
The Past Through Tomorrow, by Robert A. Heinlein (1940 stories only)
Kallocain, by Karin Boye
The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing
The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares
To the Slaughter, by Steve Cole

Last week's audios
Welcome to Night Vale eps 76-77
Terror of the Sontarans

Next books
The Oxford Book of Christmas Stories, ed. Dennis Pepper
Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Books acquired in last week
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, by Kai Ashante Wilson
Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
Sunset Mantle, by Alter S. Reiss
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
Speak Easy, by Catherynne M. Valente
Bételgeuse, tome 3 : L'Expédition, by Leo

Links I found interesting for 12-11-2015

Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson

I really loved Spin, to which this is a sequel; in fact, Spin was the first Hugo winner that I actually voted for. Axis is not as good a book, but it's still a good enough read; a complete change of central characters, pursuing a quest up the back country of an unknown parallel world, with a lot more emotional depth than you usually get in a two-fisted adventure tale. Took me ages to get around to reading it, but I am glad I finally did.

Baron de Keverberg de Kessel and Mary Lodge

We took a couple of days off last week to go and explore Bruges (and saw sarah while there, which was nice). There's lots to see, and despite the early November rain it was still seething with tourists - God knows what it's like in the high season. I don't particularly recommend the Historium exhibition, an animatronic attempt to convey life in Bruges in 1435 to us modern grockles; I'll stick with Dorothy Dunnett for my images of the fifteenth century. I did like the permanent Dali exhibition, including his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. The Basilica of the Holy Blood was very William Morris, slightly to my surprise as I had been expecting something more medieval. In the St Salvator cathedral, my eye was particularly caught by Jac Bisschops' contemporary Stations of the Cross, "De kruisweg van de verstilling".

The major museum is the Groeningemuseum; I'm not actually a huge art connoisseur (as my successive postings here about the artist categories in the BSFA Awards and Hugos have probably made clear) but I loved a lot of things here, starting with Jan van Eyck's The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele and ending with the pre-graphic novel woodcuts of Frans Masereel. But I was especially struck by the nineteenth century portraits; in the era just before photography, artists often managed to catch an inner truth which we struggle to get at with the camera.

In 1818, 23-year-old Mary Lodge, born in England, married the recently widowed Governor of West Flanders, Charles-Louis de Keverberg de Kessel, who had just turned 50. Their portraits, painted by Joseph-Fran&cced;ois Ducq, dominate one of the Groenigemuseum's rooms.

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I found this a tantalising pair of pictures. He looks, frankly, as if he's already had a brandy too many before lunch, staring out of the portrait at us; she looks like a very smart young woman, her gaze cast aside - towards him, if his portrait was hung to the right of hers? Or were the portraits meant to face each other, given that she has her back to the garden and he to an interior wall? If the latter, it seems odd to have the couple looking in different directions.

I did a little more research. Baron de Keverberg, born in what is now Dutch Limburg, made himself very useful to successive regimes in the cockpit of Europ - he rose gracefully through the local administration of his home territory, first under Prussia, then under the French. Then Napoleon put him in charge of small bits of Germany from 1810 (and he married for the first time); and after the fall of the Empire (which coincided with the death of his first wife), the new Kingdom of the United Netherlands made him governor first of Antwerp and then West Flanders, giving him his title of Baron into the bargain.

I found it much more difficult to find out about the background of Mary Lodge. French Wikipedia thinks that she was born in Stonor, Oxfordshire; Dutch Wikipedia thinks she was from Rochdale, and Nederland's adelsboek goes further and names her parents as John Lodge and Frances Croft. I found (and then lost) one online source saying that her father owned a textiles factory in Halifax. In any case, she seems to have been an orphan, staying in Bruges with her uncle, where she caught the Governor's eye. He wrote a novel, Ursula, princesse britannique, inspired by her and the art of Memling. Perhaps the manuscript for the novel is among the papers he is proudly pointing to in his portrait. In hers, she is holding the published book open at the title page (it clearly says "D'Ursula").

The year after their marriage, he was appointed to the Dutch government (as one of the officials in charge of Belgian affairs) and they moved to the Hague (where he originated the de Keverberg dilemma). They settled down and had four children, three of whom are recorded as having been born in Stonor, Oxfordshire - now the home of Jeremy Paxman; but is there therefore a connection with the Stonor family, also linked to the Blounts of Maple Durham, one of whom married my great aunt? The Baron's political career was interrupted by the Belgian revolution of 1830, but he got back in the game and died an elder statesman in 1841 aged 73. She lived until 1879, almost four decades of widowhood, and died at the Keverberg family seat of Aldengoor. Her portrait is often cited as a key example of Regency fashion.

I found it an interesting if frustrating exercise to look into the background of these paintings. A lot of the Baron's voice has been preserved for history, as he climbs the political pole while also positioning himself as a cultural guru; we get much less of Mary, whose role is that of his muse and future mother of his children. But she has a very interesting smile. I bet she was much more fun to know than him.

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