What's this all about, then?

This is my blog on Livejournal, which I have been running since the spring of 2003. Since late 2003, I've also been using it as a record of (almost) every book that I have read; I read a lot (in non-plague times, I have a long commute) and wanted to keep a good note of what I read. At 200-300 books a year, that's over 4000 books that I have written up here. (These are the most recent.)

As the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging comes closer, I've also been revisiting each month of reviews every six days or so, so you'll see some less recent reviews mentioned.

As well as books, I have been going through the films that won the Oscar for Best Picture in sequence and the films that won the Hugo or Nebula for Best Dramatic Presentation or equivalent.

And during the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been trying to keep discipline and write something about it every ten days.

Also used for occasional commentary on other stuff, but you'll find my Facebook and Twitter are more live.

I am sticking with Livejournal for now out of inertia. Dreamwidth is similar (and I'm mirroring this there) but it lacks some of the key features I like here (post-dating posts, decent image management). Some day I will bite the bullet and go with Wordpress.

Comments welcome, though sometimes quicker to email me at nicholas dot whyte at gmail dot com.

Star Tales, ed. Steve Cole

Second paragraph of third story ("Einstein and the Doctor", by Jo Cotterill):
‘I can't believe we're going to meet Einstein,’ Graham said, his eyes alight. ‘What a legend.’
A collection of six stories by different authors, each bringing the Thirteenth Doctor and her friends, and sometimes earlier incarnations too, into contact with historical celebrities Jenny T. Colgan does Amelia Earhart, Paul Magrs does Elvis, Jo Cotterill does Einstein, Steve Cole as well as editing the book does Houdini, Trevor Baxendale does Pythagoras and Mike Tucker does Audrey Hepburn, in most cases fighting off alien menaces and time paradoxes. The first two are actually rather poignant as Amelia and Elvis come close to avoiding their early deaths, but Destiny Must Prevail. This is not Great Literature, but it kept me entertained. You can get it here.

"Grotto of the Dancing Deer", by Clifford D Simak

Second paragraph of third section:
John Roberts was waiting for him on the park bench. They nodded at one another, without speaking, and Boyd sat down beside his friend
When I first wrote this up in 2006, I said:
Simak is of course most famous for his characteristic rural and pastoral take on sf: David Pringle and John Clute, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, describe "Wisconsin in about 1925" as being his true spiritual home, and his style as "constrained, nostalgic, intensely emotional beneath a calmly competent generic surface". At first sight, "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" might seem a new departure, set as it is in the foothills of the Pyrenees and Wahington DC. But in fact it is a quintessentially Simakian take on one of the oldest of sf tropes: if there were immortals living among us, what would they be like?

Most stories featuring immortals either treat immortality as a curse (the first of these probably being Gulliver's Travels) or as a blessing, probably one of several supertalents possessed by the story's protagonist or protagonists (see Zelazny or Heinlein). Simak's immortal is an ordinary rural bloke, with (unlike the hero of his Way Station) no particular explanation for, or purpose to, his immortality; he just gets along with life as best he can, and breaks his 20,000-year silence simply because he is lonely.

That's about all there is to it. The viewpoint character, Boyd, offers the immortal Luis the temptation of writing a book, becoming a millionaire; Luis rejects it. He in turn offers Boyd the location of Charlemagne's treasure, lost since Roncesvalles twelve centuries before; Boyd accepts the information but says he won't use it. Luis' immortality is not a blessing; he feels it has made him into a coward, a skulker, a participant rather than an observer. Actually, we know this is not entirely true; he has been a conscientious and responsible worker on Boyd's digs, who has studied in Paris and Oxford, and who is also a brilliant artist as Boyd has discovered. But it is clear that the worst thing about his immortality is the loneliness of a secret that cannot be told.

I love the way Simak economically sets the scene. "Luis was playing his pipe when Boyd climbed the steep path that led up to the cave." The first sentence introduces the two main characters, the main setting, and indeed the clue to the mystery (Luis' pipe). He does it again introducing the short section back in the States: "The last leaves of October were blowing in the autumn wind and a weak sun, not entirely obscured by the floating clouds, shone down on Washington." There's something very autumnal about Simak's style in general and perhaps about this story in particular. (Indeed, the choice of the word "autumn" rather than the usual American "fall" is both surprising and appropriate.) I wish I could write like that.

There must have also been an autumnal factor in the choice of the Nebula and Hugo voters. Simak, born in 1904, was by some way the oldest ever recipient of either award at the time, born six years before the previous record-holder, Fritz Leiber, who had won both awards with "Catch That Zeppelin" five years earlier. (Simak's record stood for two decades until the recent [in 2006] surge of affection for Jack Williamson.) "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" was his second last published short story. He had already been made a Grand Master (the third, after Heinlein and Williamson). It also can't have done any harm that he was the Guest of Honour at the Worldcon where the Hugo was awarded.

But basically this is a good story - probably my favourite of the joint winners in the Short Story category after Connie Willis' "Even the Queen" - which doesn't seem to have had a lot of competition (I haven't read any of the other nominated stories, but none has had much reprint history, which is often a good indicator, and the Hugo voting was pretty one-sided), and which happened fortunately also to be by a popular author in his last years as a writer. Not perhaps a classic, but certainly a gem.

(Small note on the story's title: As originally published in Analog it appears to have been "Grotto of the Dancing Deer", and that title seems to have then been used by all the early collections. But The Best of the Nebulas firmly uses "The Grotto of the Dancing Deer", which appears also to be the case for the two Simak collections, The Marathon Photograph and Over the River and Through the Woods, and for the Jack Dann/Gardner Dozois anthology Immortals. However in its latest publication, The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume 1 ed. Frederik Pohl (1999), the definite article is once more absent. I assume that Simak himself preferred to have it in, but since it seems to have won Hugo and Nebula without, I'll continue referring to the story as "Grotto of the Dancing Deer" here.
There's not much to add to that, fifteen years on. Maybe just worth noting that there are only three characters in the story (the protagonis, the immortal, and the friend in Washington), and they are all white men.

"Grotto of the Dancing Deer" won both Hugo and Nebula for Short Story in 1981. No other story was on both final ballots. It was a year when there was unusually little crossover between the two sets of awards. Best Novel went to The Snow Queen (Hugo) and Timescape (Nebula), each of which I would have thoguht more likely to win the other award rather than the one they did win. Best Novella went to “Lost Dorsai”, by Gordon R. Dickson (Hugo) and “Unicorn Tapestry”, by Suzy McKee Charnas (Nebula). Best Novelette went to “The Cloak and the Staff”, also by Gordon R. Dickson (Hugo) and “The Ugly Chickens”, by Howard Waldrop (Nebula), this last also being about unexpected historical survivors alive in the present day. The Hugo for best Dramatic Presentation went to The Empire Strikes Back.

Next in this sequence is another shorter piece that was the only joint winner in its year, “The Saturn Game”, by Poul Anderson. My memory is that I did not like it as much.

This is a much reprinted story, most recently in the fourth volume of Simak's collected fiction, appropriately titled Grotto of the Dancing Deer and Other Stories. I also have it in a couple of other places, notably Bova's Best of the Nebulas collection.

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Empire Games, by Charles Stross

Second paragraph of third chapter:
They left the conference center in a Tesla with blacked-out windows, then drove her for half an hour through the trackless, officezoned industrial yards of Seattle. Their destination was an anonymous warehouse with a loading dock and a windowless door. There was nothing to distinguish it from hundreds of others except for a couple of unobtrusive bird-drones soaring overhead like legless, featherless seagulls with telephoto eyes. Inside, it was furnished with office cubicles and, disturbingly, a shipping container tricked out as a motel room—if motel rooms came without windows and had doors that locked from the outside. Gomez and her sidekick—Rita gathered he was called Jack, but his surname remained elusive—ushered Rita into a room like a compact Holiday Inn, then locked the door. Half an hour later it opened again and a uniformed cop shoved her suitcase inside. It had been searched and clumsily repacked, but everything was present.
First of the second series of Merchant Princes books by Charles Stross, where the ability to move between worlds is restricted to a few with the right gene, but the economic and military effects of the linkage between parallel universes is profound. Some very good setup of the intelligence connections between a world rather like ours, except with an even bigger disruptive event than 9/11, and another where a newish revolutionary regime in the east of North America is teetering on the brink of governance breakdown, with the added drama of the family relationship between the two protagonists. Looking forward to the next one. You can get this one here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2017. Next on that pile is the omnibus of the first two books in the original series, Bloodline Feud. (Which I did actually read back in the day, but I'll go back to them happily.)

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Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, by Zora Neale Hurston

Second paragraph of third story (“A Bit of Our Harlem”):
The boy approached the table where the girl sat with the air of a homeless dog who hopes that he has found a friend.
Collection of the short stories written by Hurston in the 1920s and 1930s, all about the contemporary experience of black Americans, mostly set either in Harlem or in Eatonville, Florida, her home town. Several of these stories were unpublished in her lifetime, perhaps intentionally so; they are good honest reportage of her people's life, some better than others. There's a lot of marital infidelity, a lot of smart children; they all worked well enough for me apart from the biblical pastiches which are anyway mercifully short. Published only last year. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a writer of colour. Next on that list is A Hero Born, by Jin Yong.

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The Vlooybergtoren

I took B yesterday to visit the Vlooybergtoren, a lookout tower a few km north of where she lives (at 50.926611 N 4.916528 E to be precise). The weather was not fantastic, but we had also been (with all three kids) two years ago and I don't seem to have written that up here at the time, so here are the rather better photographs from 2019 mixed in with the overcast ones from yesterday.

It was built in 2013 to replace an old wooden watchtower that had collapsed after repeated vandalism, and was then enlarged in 2018 after another vandalism incident. The whole thing weighs 13 tons; it is 11 m high and 20 m in length.

Yesterday B had just had a brutal haircut (she is not always co-operative with haircuts). But she was in good enough form. Some sports car enthusiasts were meeting up at the tower - you can see two AC Cobras behind her, and I am not sufficiently versed in these matters to identify the others that were visible in the vicinity.

B does not go for long walks these days, and yesterday balked a bit less than halfway up. I escorted her back to our car and completed the climb myself.

In 2019 we were able to persuade her to go all the way.

At the base of the tower is a poem by local poet Ina Stabergh:
Tower of Tielt

Noem mij toren van Pisa
of steek een pluim op mijn top
zeg dat ik eend ladder ben
en wortels heb die me voeden
maar zeg nooit
dat ik van ivoor ben
of de toren van Babel.

Zeg gewoon: Toren van Tielt.
Tower of Tielt

Call me the Tower of Pisa
Or stick a feather on top of me
Say that I am a ladder
And have roots that feed me
But never say
That I am an ivory tower
Or the Tower of Babel

Just say: Tower of Tielt.

The designer, Yves Willems, said rather cryptically that he was inspired by a phrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Terre des hommes:
Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher.

It seems that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.
The Vlooybergtoren won a prize for one of the best steel constructions in Belgium that year. The jury said:

A thrilling project, full of imagination with a
surrealist side. It has a function, but maybe
it doesn't. This 'stairway to heaven' is a wink to
Magritte - 'ceci n'est pas un escalier'.
(French and Dutch texts are slightly differently nuanced; I have used the French.)
The reference of course is to this famous painting of 1929:

So, partly a watchtower for the local woodlands, partly a nod to our national heritage of artistic surrealism, partly a tourist attraction. What could be more Belgian?