January 28th, 2012


The complete Earthsearch

I was on the road a lot last week, so only now blogging recent reading/listening; stand by for a few more posts this morning.

I remember catching occasional episodes of the 1981-82 BBC sf radio series Earthsearch, in which the crew of a generation starship have been wiped out by the ship's megalomaniac computers, apart from four children who are brought up under the computers' control and then must gradually emancipate themselves. In the second series, two children of the next generation are added to the mix and they too must shake off the computers' influence as they all seek the lost planet Earth.

At the time, as a cynical teenager, I didn't actually rate the show that highly. But listening to it thirty years on, I could see its strong points. James Follett, the show's writer, did not have the genius of Douglas Adams but did have more discipline, and the two ten-episode series actually work fairly well as a continuous arc in which each episode must feature this week's new planet, or abandoned starship, or killer robot, or all three. It doesn't really challenge cliches or conventions, but it does take the British tradition of sf and bring it to a new medium. Nicholas Courtney pops up as the last president of Earth before it was removed from our solar system, recorded for posterity.

Much more recently, in 2006 Big Finish produced an audio version of Follett's novel Mindwarp, which is a sort-of prequel to the radio series and features a lot of the same tropes, though in this case the central characters must escape from the underground city which is the only world they have ever known. I thought this was in general better than the original (and also considerably shorter), sadly let down by the lacklustre performance of Leon Parris as the male lead. His rather phoned-in performance is a jarring contrast to the ever-luscious tones of India Fisher as the female lead and Colin Baker and (again) Nicholas Courtney in supporting roles, and it's a shame that an actor who can actually do audio wasn't selected for the part.

January Books 24) Judgement day, by Scott Gray

Sadly the very last of the SJA audiobooks, read by Anjli "Rani" Molhindra, about the kidnapping and trial of Sarah Jane by an alien race with an unhealthy devotion to the truth. It's a decent tale, well read by Malhotra, which actually probes at Sarah's own motives and actions and the slightly ambiguous moral basis for them, a bit more deeply and more effectively than one might have expected from an audio book for younger listeners. It's very vivid in places, perhaps reflecting author Scott Gray's experience in comics.

I was going to do a full roundup of all the Sarah Jane audiobooks here, but I realise that I still have two to listen to - The White Wolf and The Shadow People - so will report back when I have done them.

January Books 25) Skypoint, by Phil Ford

Another pretty decent Torchwood novel, with an intersection between exploitative aliens and exploitative crime lords in the property market in Cardiff Bay, set just after Gwen and Rhys return from honeymoon, with Owen still dead and walking. Some nice exploration of the dysfunction in the Owen/Toshiko relationship (Toshiko gets to be on the front cover this time) and lots of reference to their back-stories which will please the diehard fan. My one gripe is that the supposedly Latvian crimelord has a rather Adriatic name ("Besnik Lucca" - first name Albanian, second name Italian).

January Books 27) Indian Summer, by Alex von Tunzelmann

A very readable account of the British withdrawal from India, largely from the point of view of Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten, whose papers are used extensively, though with some effort also made to include the roles of the other key political players. On Lord Mountbatten's responsibility for the horrors of partition, I found it was a useful alternative viewpoint to the hatchet-job by Andrew Roberts which I read several years ago. I think that von Tunzelmann has become slightly beguiled by her source and gives him more benefit of the doubt than is really justifiable by her own account, though I will agree that mitigating factors include the criminally obstructive attitude of Winston Churchill to Indian independence and Mountbatten's success at persuading almost all the princely states to join the new Indian or Pakistani states - Kashmir and Hyderabad are notorious exceptions but there could have been many more. Her account of the love affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten manages to be both entertaining and respectful.

Since I work more or less in the field of international conflict resolution, I am struck by how far the level of understanding of these problems has advanced since 1947. In those days the debate was shaped partly by legal rights established by history (or myth) and partly by the rather one-dimensional discourse of anti-colonialism, with very little reference to the actual wishes and needs of people on the ground. The independence of Montenegro from Serbia was achieved with no bloodshed at all, and while Kosovo and South Sudan may have their problems, they have been handled rather better than India/Pakistan (or indeed Israel/Palestine) sixty years before. The mistake that is more often made these days is wishful thinking, where international officials kid themselves that genocidal leaders like Milošević and Bashir don't really mean it, and then discover that they do; the Indian partition case was a much more straightforward mismanagement of expectations by the political leaders, particularly Mountbatten, to the point that violence became an effective and preferred mode of discourse for many actors.

One should not perhaps blame Mountbatten for failing to implement best practices which had not yet been worked out. And yet... what comes across over and over again is how Mountbatten consistently rated his own political and managerial abilities much higher than did anyone who had actually had to work with him. In the end the misjudgements which made the partition of India so much worse than it needed to have been were his misjudgements and nobody else's. So von Tunzelmann did not quite convince me, but she did entertain me.