July 14th, 2013


July Books 3) The Jagged Orbit, by John Brunner

Mother Superior couldn't be drearier! Life is opressive and lonely and dun! Little Miss Celia envied Ophelia - Hamlet ignored her and then there was none!
This won the second BSFA Best Novel Award in 1970 (after the same author's Stand on Zanzibar the previous year). It is set in 2014, mainly in and around New York, with a background of racial conflict, proliferation of privately owned weapons, and mass media which presents news as entertainment; there was a particularly good paragraph predicting spam, which unfortunately I failed to mark and couldn't track down again. The story also involves a young woman who has visions of the future when in a drug-induced trance, which is less noticeably a feature of today's society. As with Brunner's other books, it is interspersed with news items giving a wider context, though here a lot of them are apparently from British news coverage of the racial tension in the USA in the late 1960s.

While I liked the intensity and indeed accuracy of the setting, I found the basic plot rather less engaging, and the characters not awfully sympathetic or memorable. It's not recorded what else was up for the 1970 BSFA award, but The Left Hand of Darkness won both Hugo and Nebula (The Jagged Orbit was nominated for the latter).

July Books 4) Harvest of Time, by Alastair Reynolds

"We are what we are, Doctor. If I did not exist, the universe would soon fill the void left by my absence. You could almost say that the universe requires us. We are order and disorder. We balance each other very effectively."
This wheeze of getting well-known writers to contribute new Doctor Who books is proving an awfully good adventure. This is an excellent Doctor/Master/Jo story with UNIT in a supporting role, with adventures on oil rigs and a brilliant time paradox which poses an existential threat to the Master, and through him to the universe - very neatly done, and the Doctor is forced to make a crucial choice about his old enemy. Reynolds has caught the spirit fo the Pertwee era and made something new out of it. Strongly recommended both for Who fans and Reynolds fans. (Many of the latter are already in the former category, of course.)

July Books 5) Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol

— Я полагаю приобресть мертвых, которые, впрочем, значились бы по ревизии как живые, — сказал Чичиков.
'My intention is to obtain dead serfs, who, however, are indicated as alive in the census list,' said Chichikov.
Dead Souls is presented to the reader in a rather odd way. Supposedly it was intended to be a trilogy, of which the first book is complete and the parts of several chapters of the second were written; like The Castle, it ends in mid-sentence. I guess it's useful for completeness to have that material, but in fact the first book works perfectly well on its own: Chichikov, who is a right chancer, arrives in a small provincial town, and buys himself status by ostentatious expenditure and also by purchasing the "dead souls" of the title. Each of the chapters is an effective sketch of individuals in the town and nearby countryside, and the satirical descriptions of Chichikov's interactions with them. Gogol is puncturing respectable bubbles here, and holding a slightly distorting mirror up to the world. I have to say that, by modern standards of satire, it's all rather gentle, but I still found it pretty entertaining with hints of hidden depths.

July Books 6) Shakespeare's Handwriting: A Study, by Edward Maunde Thompson

...as for the Shakespearian MS., who could have made bold, any time within these last hundred and sixty years, to proclaim that he who would set eyes upon it need only raise his hand and take it down from its shelf in the Department of Manuscripts of the British Museum?
This is one of the classics of Shakespeariana and indeed of palæography, and you can now read it here. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, one of the world's experts of his day, looked carefully at the six surviving signatures of William Shakespeare, and the three pages of the manuscript of Sir Thomas More which were written in a different hand to the others and sounded a bit Shakespearian; and concludes that they are by the same person. His description of how the letters are formed is meticulous, especially given that there are not that many letters in six signatures (one prefixed by the words "By me") to analyse. Scholars continue to debate whether or not Thomspon was right, and no doubt there is wishful thinking on both sides. In fact, why not judge for yourself:

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I think this illustrates how fiendishly difficult these judgements are. I dabbled in palæography myself in times past and can appreciate just how difficult it is to get one's eye in, and certainly don't feel I can challenge Thompson's verdict, which has made me all too aware of how little I know about the normal variation of individual handwriting around 1600. I have deliberately looked only at the capital letters above, because they are easiest on the unaccustomed eye; it should be noted that Thompson makes his case much more on the lower case letters, 'a' in particular. It's quite a short book and pretty lucid in explaining why Thompson comes to the judgement he did.

I dug this up because I was reviewing the comments on my last Shakespeare post. Not surprisingly, this summary of Thompson's research is not just a distortion but almost entirely inaccurate. This is the biggest problem with engaging with the Oxfordians (and the anti-Stratfordians in general): many of them simply lie about what is in the record, and are never called out by their own side even when the lies are blatant. The 9-11 Truthers are similar (I had a brush with them a few months back).

Of course, for those of who who think that Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that have his name attached to them, it doesn't really matter very much whether or not three more pages of a play that was not printed or performed for centuries after his death can be added to the list of his works. For those who are desperate to prove that the William Shakespeare of the documentary record, whose signature appears on four legal documents (a witness deposition, two property records and three on his will), was not the same bloke who wrote the plays, it is obviously problematic if that bloke actually did write three pages of a play. But they have bigger problems to contend with.
gerald ford

100 years after Gerald Ford's birth

On 14 July 1913, Leslie Lynch King Jr was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He grew up as Gerald Ford of Michigan, which is how history knows him: the only man to serve as both Vice-President and President of the United States of America, without ever being elected to either office; no President served a shorter term than Ford and lived to tell the tale; no President has lived longer.

He tends to be particularly remembered for his fluffs: his term of office began by pardoning his predecessor (and even then he fluffed the announcement, getting the month wrong) and ended when in debate with Jimmy Carter he stated that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe", a pretty massive fluff.

In fact Ford was perfectly well aware of the situation in Eastern Europe, and presumably simply had one of those foot-in-mouth moments that happen to us all from time to time (though hopefully not in the defining public appearance of our careers). By negotiating the Helsinki Accords, he laid the foundations for the strengthening of civil society and embedded human rights in the geopolitical discourse of Europe, laying the foundations for the collapse of Communism two decades later to take a largely peaceful course (with some rather obvious exceptions). Those of us who live in a united, peaceful and free Europe today owe him, and I'll raise a glass to his memory this evening.

It should also be noted that he took a markedly more liberal line on LGBT rights than most of his own party. But the 1970s were a different time.

Links I found interesting for 14-07-2013