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Beyond This Horizon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 10)

I like these short books you can read in a day.

A reread, of course. I read most or all of Heinlein from my early days of reading SF. But I read the blurb on the back of this and didn’t recognise it at all. Started reading, and it still wasn’t familiar.

Then as I got closer to the end, it did start to seem familiar. Did I read the last quarter of it recently? Or is there a short-story version of part of it that I read not long ago? I don’t know, but it’s often strange how memory works.

Anyway, the first point about this: the sexual politics are horrific. It’s a future society where men go armed routinely — and so it is a ‘polite’ society. It may be where the phrase ‘an armed society is a polite society’ comes from. I wonder what Heinlein (assuming that to be his actual view) would think of today’s armed society in America.

Women, on the other hand, do not go armed, or do much else apart from be decorative and have babies. Mostly. One woman character wears a sidearm, but the protagonist does not exactly treat her with the respect he gives to other men.

Men can choose not to go armed, in which case they have to wear the ‘Brassard of peace,’ and are treated as second-class citizens by the armed ‘braves.’

But it’s not mainly about any of that. It’s about eugenics, and how and whether it’s possible to improve the human race ethically.

In story terms it’s OK. It’s interesting enough that you want to know what happens, but it feels like its main purpose in existing is to examine the philosophical questions around eugenics. I note that it was published in 1942, so before the Nazis’ experiments were known about.

Boiling a Frog by Christoper Brookmyre (Books 2020, 8)

The last Brookmyre I read was Pandaemonium, in 2010. Before that, his first, Quite Ugly One Morning, before I started writing here. The second of those introduced campaigning journalist Jack Parlabane. There’s another one before this, but you don’t need to read them in order. There are also a stack more.1

Anyway, what’s it like? No bad, as we say in Scotland. It starts off with Parlabane in prison. Part of the story, including how he ended up there, is told in flashback. It’s all set in the early days of the new Scottish Pariliament, around 2000, 2001.

It’s a decent page turner, I can’t deny. My main criticism in writerly terms is about the old ‘show, don’t tell,’ thing, which we’ve discussed here before.

In at least one of those pieces I counsel against setting that injunction in stone. But it’s notable how much of this novel violates or ignores it. For large chunks of the flashbacks we’re told what happens. It’s fine. The writing style flows and it doesn’t feel like infodumps, but I was certainly aware of it.

Worth reading. I’ll probably read more of him, eventually. Still looking for a sequel to Pandaemonium, though.


  1. Apparently I’ve also read Be My Enemy. I don’t remember anything about that one, and I only mentioned it in passing there. 

We Have No Idea How Many of the Deaths Attributed to Covid-19 Really Were Due to the Disease’

Dr John Lee, writing in The Spectator (paywall, but free access to a few articles), explains what pathologists do, and goes on to say:

We are still struggling to understand coronavirus. I can think of no time in my medical career when it has been more important to have accurate diagnosis of a disease, and understanding of precisely why patients have died of it. Yet very early on in the epidemic, rules surrounding death certification were changed — in ways that make the statistics unreliable.

We’ve moved from needing two doctors to certify death, to only one if the cause is believed to be Covid-19. And sometimes the ‘cause’ is decided from a statement from care-home staff, who are not usually trained medical professionals.

So at a time when accurate death statistics are more important than ever, the rules have been changed in ways that make them less reliable than ever. In what proportion of Covid-19 ‘mentions’ was the disease actually present? And in how many cases, if actually present, was Covid-19 responsible for death? Despite what you may have understood from the daily briefings, the shocking truth is that we just don’t know. How many of the excess deaths during the epidemic are due to Covid-19, and how many are due to our societal responses of healthcare reorganisation, lockdown and social distancing? Again, we don’t know. Despite claims that they’re all due to Covid-19, there’s strong evidence that many, perhaps even a majority, are the result of our responses rather than the disease itself.

It sometimes seems like we’re trying, as a country, to handle this whole thing as badly as possible.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Books 2020, 7)

I decided I needed something SF-y that I knew I’d enjoy: a reread, in other words. Something with spaceships. Prowling my shelves, this is what I came to. No spaceships, but fast skateboards and faster motorbikes, katanas and glass knives; and of course, the Metaverse.

I was struck by how little of it I remembered, but it is something like 26 years since I read it (published 1992, so I’m guessing I read it in 94 or so).

Hiro Protagonist, the fantastically-named hero, is a hacker.1 He’s also the greatest samurai swordsman alive, supposedly. And he’s delivering pizzas for the Mafia. Which fact is the first view we have of how the world — or at least America — has changed. There is almost no government, no laws; and everything is split up into ‘burbclaves’ and franchises, run by companies, churches, or criminal organisations.

But there is the Metaverse. Nothing we have today is close to what it is like, but it’s what virtual reality wants to be, and maybe will be one day.

The internet is everywhere (which of course wasn’t the case when it was written). Though phoneboxes still exist, and using them is one way to get into the Metaverse. And if you want mobile access, you have to ‘go gargoyle.’ Which is to say, wear your special goggles and carry a computer around with you, strapped to your body. There are mobile phones, but the conversion of them into pocket computers is not something that Stephenson foresaw. Or at least, not something he made use of here.

The Ending

I had the impression that everyone thought that early Stephenson had problems with endings. I mean, I had that impression myself, and have alluded to it here before. And I thought that this was one with a slightly weak ending.

But it isn’t at all. The bit that I remembered — the climax that takes place in the Metaverse — comes at the end of a tense chase/fight sequence, and while it depicts a scene that might be anticlimactic for the people in-universe who witness it, it’s fully satisfying and sound to us, the readers. Then the last couple of chapters wind things up neatly back in the outer world.

The criticism that might be levelled at it, especially in SF terms, is that we don’t see how the world has been changed by the events of the story. But I think that can easily be left to our imaginations.

A genuine classic.


  1. Interesting to note that even programmers for the government are called ‘hackers’ here. In the positive sense, of course. 

Lying Sack

Nice to see the gentle description of Mary Wakefield in Wikipedia this morning:

The start of Mary Wakefield's Wikipedia entry, this morning

In case you don’t know, Wakefield is married to Dominic Cummings. She works for The Spectator, and wrote the now-famous piece about her and Cummings’s experience suffering from Covid-19. All without mentioning their drive across the country.

Hence the delightful opening — now removed, predictably — in Wikipedia, describing her as “a lying sack of potatoes”.

The Beat(les) Generation is Slipping Away

Sad to read in The Guardian that Astrid Kirchherr1 has died. She was 81. That’s not a bad age, and it’s not like I had followed her career. I just knew her as a photographer who had worked with The Beatles, and been Stuart Sutcliffe’s partner till he died.

But from my early reading of Beatles books — like The Beatles: An Illustrated Record — onward, I was aware of her as part of their story, their mythology.

More than that, though, as the article above, as well as her obituary, will tell you: she was the one who gave them their early look. She made them the “lovable moptops.” They’d have been successful without the haircuts, of course, but there’s no denying the importance of that early image.

I think I’m saddened more because of what her death represents. I was born the year The Beatles took America. They had long split up by the time I developed any musical awareness.2 But they were the first band I really got interested in, when my sister gave me a tape. They were my favourites until punk came along, and I love them still.

But that whole generation is ageing — well, who isn’t, of course — and will soon be gone. And mine not too far behind it. So what it all comes down to is that Astrid’s death reminds me of my own mortality, and there’s no excuse for that!

Brilliant photos, though.


  1. I note that I always thought her name was Kirchnerr. But there’s no “n” to be found. 

  2. Though I did shock my grandma when I was very small, by singing “Obla-di, Obla-da.” She thought I was “swearing”. And it might have been The Marmalade’s version that I’d heard at that time. 

Snooze iPhone Alarms Using Hardware Buttons

I don’t know whether people know about this iOS feature. I discovered it by accident a year or two back. Before that I used to snooze my alarms by drowsily scrabbling for my phone, prying my eyes open, then trying to tap the correct onscreen button.

Then one morning the alarm was too loud — or it might have been too quiet, I don’t recall — and I tried to change the volume. When I pressed the volume button, the alarm instantly stopped. I thought I had cancelled it by accident, until it rang again the customary nine minutes later.1

Since then I’ve always snoozed my alarms that way. But nearly every time I do, I think, “Do people know about this feature?” Because I don’t think I’ve ever seen it written down. And I’m going to post this without DuckDucking first, so that the existence of some article in The Verge or somewhere doesn’t spoil my flow.

I had thought that pressing the power button cancelled the alarm, rather than snoozing it, but I just checked, and it also snoozes it. So if you reach out, eyes closed, and press anything on the side of your iPhone, you’ll get another nine minutes.

In the interest of fully informing you, dear reader, I’ve just checked what the Home button does; and it appears that does cancel the alarm. So keep your presses to the sides.

I should note that I still have an iPhone 7. I’ve no reason to believe the behaviour is significantly different on more recent models, but obviously on the 10-series phones (X, XR, XS and the various 11s) you don’t have the Home button, so something different might happen. Let me know if you find out.


  1. Why nine minutes, I’ve always wondered? Presumably ten is just a bit too long, and anything else would be too short. Why isn’t it configurable? Because, I assume, Apple have always been a highly opinionated company. 

This guy gets it. The start of a 16-tweet thread, and following on from my thoughts the other day.