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The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (Books 2022, 1)

This extremely short book is only a novella, but it took me some time to get through it because of the density and obscurity of the prose. James is, I think, notorious for writing long sentences, but that’s only part of it. It’s the textural density, the complexity, and, I think, the wilfully archaic (even for the time) formulations, that make it hard work.

It’s a ghost story, though the status of the ghostly presences is disputed, or at least discussed: are they all in the governess’s mind? The bulk of the tale is the first-person narrative of the governess, but it starts with an odd framing sequence of tales being told round a Christmas-eve fireplace. One of the company is reminded of a manuscript he has, and sends for it. The rest is him ‘reading’ from it. And I’m not sure that ‘framing’ is the right term here, because we never return to the reading party. It seems like a device to let James write from the point of view of a woman.

Once you attune yourself to the style, it’s pretty compelling. Chilling in places.

Beyond the Hallowed Sky by Ken MacLeod (Books 2021, 28)

Ken posted about this on his blog, along with a link to the first chapter on the publisher’s site. I read the chapter and instantly ordered the book from my local bookshop. Finished it on New Year’s Day, so it counts as 2021.

He describes it as ‘the first volume of the Lightspeed Trilogy’, and adds that ‘the second volume is well underway.’ Which is fine, but I usually make it a rule not to start unfinished serieses. So not so much a rule as a preference, let’s say.

This particular book ends in a way that is satisfactorily complete, but open enough for the followups to go in all sorts of directions. Plenty of unanswered questions, but none so burning that the wait should be annoying.

It’s set in 2070, after that initial chapter which is three years earlier. Humanity is about to develop lightspeed travel. Or it already has. What intelligences will be waiting out there? Some people think the answer is ‘none’, because of the Fermi Paradox.

The political situation is interesting. The countries of the world have largely coalesced into three blocks: the Alliance, which is the Anglosphere minus Scotland and Ireland, but including India; the Union, which is most of Europe including Scotland and Ireland; and the Coordinated States, which is Russia and China. We don’t hear anything about Africa or the Middle East. There has been (or is ongoing) an event called the Cold Revolution.

Also artificial intelligences are commonplace, including androids that are essentially indistinguishable from humans.

And if you need to build a starship, obviously you’re going to add the FTL drive to a submarine. And where do you build such ships? On the Clyde, of course. A lot of this is set in places from my childhood, which is fun for me.

Lost at Christmas, 2020 - ★★★

That strangest of things, a Scottish Christmas film. A very low budget, fun enough, story about two people meeting on Christmas Eve and getting stranded in a lonely inn in Glencoe.

Clare Grogan features in a very small part. Even though there is singing, she doesn’t sing, which is a shame.

And for a seasonal Doctor Who connection, both Sylvester McCoy and Frazer Hines are also in it.

See in Letterboxd

Starting the Year (and a Brief Look Back)

Welcoming in the new year, and a quick look at last year’s stats

2022. That’s a lot of 2s. Though just wait till the 2nd of February.

Happy New Year to one and all. Who knows what 2022 will bring, but let’s hope it’s at least some relief from the difficulties of 2020 and 2021. But the coronavirus doesn’t care about calendars, and neither does viral evolution.

Anyway, I posted 143 times in 2021, which is broadly in line with recent years. Here’s the breakdown, because why not?

Month Posts
Jan 22
Feb 12
Mar 17
Apr 14
May 10
Jun 11
Jul 12
Aug 6
Sep 14
Oct 6
Nov 8
Dec 11

2020’s stats, and 2019’s.

This Site Now Has a Dark Theme

As you’ll have noticed if you’re looking at this post on a device set to dark mode, I’ve added a dark theme. At the moment it’s just automatic: if your device is set to dark you get the dark mode, if light, you’ll see it as it has been for the last year and a half. I might add an option switch at some point.

Let me know if anything looks weird.

A Note I’d Like to Send Back Through Time

If you’re dealing with family photos back in the seventies, eighties, nineties, it’s great that you write the date and place on the back (thanks, Mum). That’s super useful. But could you please name the event and the people, too?

Yes, of course, you know what it was and who they were. But you’re not writing it for you. You’re writing it for your descendants, decades later, who want to know who these people were.

Why yes, I am scanning some old family photos, why do you ask?

Oh, and also: don’t waste film on scenery. The Scottish hills and moors are lovely, but I’m not interested in scanning old photos of them. Give me people, family, friends. Give me backgrounds, the wallpaper in the old house. Show me bookcases, wood-effect stereo systems. Old streets and shop signs.

And people, above all, people: that’s what casual photography should be for.

You know what no one took pictures of in the film days? Food. I’d actually love to see some old Sunday roasts or birthday cakes, but I don’t suppose they’d look that different from today’s.

Planetfall by Emma Newman (Books 2021, 27)

This is a novel about a human colony on an unnamed planet. There are, as we soon learn from the first-person narrator, Renata, lies and mysteries at the heart of the colony. Not least of those is how and why the humans came to live on this particular planet, in this particular place.

The place is at the foot of a mountain-like, biological, probably engineered structure they call the ‘City of God’. Twenty years ago — or more: the colony has existed for twenty years, but it’s not clear how long the journey through space took — a small group of humans managed to get there in a spaceship. They were led by ‘The Pathfinder’, a woman who, we discover through flashbacks, knew what planet to head for because of a revelation she had had after ingesting the seed of a mysterious plant.

The intrigue of the novel is about how that backstory and the rest is filled in, how the colony keeps going, and what happens in the ‘now’ of the story, when a mysterious human arrives.

How they designed and built a ship capable of getting there is not explained, and how far away from Earth it is is never stated. But I don’t think Newman really understands the scales applicable to astronomical distances. On several occasions characters refer to having travelled (or in flashback, being about to travel) ‘millions of miles’ to get to the new planet.

Our sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. If we’re talking about distances that are sensibly expressed in terms of millions of miles, then we’re talking about places inside our own solar system. And this is definitely not that.

Just to check, I asked Siri how far in miles it is to Alpha Centauri. It looked up Wolfram Alpha and told me, ‘About 25.8 trillion miles.’ That’s the closest star system to our own. It’s not wrong to call that ‘millions of miles’, but it’s not exactly accurate. A trillion, after all, is a million million. And that’s just the closest system.

It doesn’t affect the story, but it’s a weird thing for an SF writer to have missed, for no beta reader to have picked up, for an editor working at an SF publisher not to have caught.

Other than that, she does a great job of telling a first-person narrative from the point of view of someone who has some mental issues. All narrators are unreliable, and perhaps this one more so than usual. So we wonder how much we can rely on her telling of what happens, especially at the end.

There’s a religious background to this: the Pathfinder believed — and convinced those who came with her — that they would find God in the mysterious ‘city’. Did they? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s part of a four-book series, which apparently can be read in any order. The next one (in terms of when they were written) looks like it takes place back on Earth, so we may learn nothing more about what happened in the colony, which was cut off from home.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots (Books 2021, 26)

The title comes from ‘henchman’ — or -woman. We are in a world where superheroes exist, and thereby, also super villains. Anna Tromedlov works as a ‘hench’ — or tries to. As the novel starts she’s using a temp agency, trying to pick up work.

At first it seems to be a comedy, but then she’s at a press conference given by the villain she’s working for, when the heroes arrive. Things get a lot darker.

Are superheroes, with their disregard for public safety, the real danger in a world like this? This novel takes a good look at that question, with accompanying adventure, threat, and romance.

It’s good. Cory Doctorow recommended it.

If she didn’t start out planning to call herself ‘The Palindrome’, would you ever think to read her surname backwards?