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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?

Spider-Man: No Way Home, 2021 - ★★★★

Pretty good follow-on from the earlier Spider-Man films. My daughter tells me ‘All the fan theories were right.’ I wasn’t aware of them, so I hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone. 

Turned out Doctor Strange (long my favourite Marvel character) wasn’t being quite as idiotic as I’d thought from the trailer, so that was good. Sets things up nicely for his next film.

See in Letterboxd

Comet Weather by Liz Williams (Books 2021, 25)

An enjoyable present-day story of magic in Somerset and London. Mostly the country, with Glastonbury and Avebury and such places featuring in passing.

Four adult sisters are making their different ways in the world, but their mother disappeared a year ago. Ghosts and the spirits of stars sometimes wander the family home, where one of the sisters still lives, and the others come and go. A comet is due in the sky soon, and magic threats appear to be building.

Magic realism, you could call it, in the sense that it’s set in the real worlds and magic is just there, for this family and a few other people at least. Everyday problems of relationships and such are part of it. The boyfriend of one of the sisters is a ghost.

I enjoyed it, and will probably read the sequel, which is out. My main problem with it was that the four sisters’ voices weren’t distinctive enough. The story is told from their multiple viewpoints. This is helpful to me, because it’s something I’m struggling with myself. Indeed, my supervisor suggested that maybe I shouldn’t have so many viewpoints.

Three. I have three. Hands up who thinks that’s too many?

A Song Needs Words

The truth about what a song is.

On What a Song Is

It seems like I’m increasingly often hearing people — especially, but not exclusively, Americans — referring to things as ‘songs’ that are not, in fact, songs.

For example, Doctor Who does not have a theme song. Nor does Eastenders — though long ago a song using the Eastenders theme music made a dent in the UK charts.

Red Dwarf and Firefly, to take two more science-fictional examples, do have theme songs.

Because here’s the truth of it: it’s not a song if it doesn’t have words. One or more human voices singing (because the verb sing goes with the noun song, obviously) is what is needed to make a piece of music into a song.

Those first examples above? Those are theme tunes. It’s not hard to understand the difference. For the Eastenders-based hit, somebody wrote words to go with the music; somebody sang it.

I’ve been thinking of this as a recent thing, people referring as ‘songs’ to pieces of music without words. But I recalled why Eastenders came to mind. Long ago in the distant past (the 80s) I had a housemate who had an American girlfriend. That programme came on the telly, and she said, ‘Oh, I love this song.’

Much more recently, on the Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), John Siracusa was trying to locate a beeping sound that something in his basement was making.1 It was a series of electronic tones, played in a melodic fashion. a little tune, in other words. But he repeatedly referred to it as a ‘song’. Which it very definitely was not.

Other Takes

I’m not saying there are no grey areas here. What about the voice used as an instrument, where it only makes wordless tones; mouth-music, as we used to call it? Or pieces that are largely instrumental, but have one vocal piece thrown in, like Glenn Miller’s ‘Pennsylvania 65000’, where the band stop playing at a couple of points and shout the title?

Or Mendelssohn has a series of pieces entitled ‘Songs Without Words’. What are those, then?

Birdsong, or whale songs? The clue there is in the adjectives, of course: just as nut milk is a milk-like drink made from the relevant nut (or similarly, oats, soya, etc), so birdsong is a song-like thing made by a bird.

Since I’m seeing this as mainly an American thing, let’s consult America’s favourite dictionary, Merriam-Webster:

Definition of song (noun)

  1. the act or art of singing
  2. poetical composition
  3. a) a short musical composition of words and music
    b) a collection of such compositions
  4. a distinctive or characteristic sound or series of sounds (as of a bird, insect, or whale)
  5. a) a melody for a lyric poem or ballad
    b) a poem easily set to music
  6. a) a habitual or characteristic manner
    b) a violent, abusive, or noisy reaction (put up quite a song)
  7. a small amount (sold for a song)

3a is the key one in my argument, clearly. 5a moves disturbingly in the opposite direction, since it refers to ‘a melody’. But since the melody is specifically ‘for a lyric poem or ballad’, the fundamental need for words still stands.

In the end, if it hasn’t got words, it’s not worth a song.


  1. Spoiler: it was the freezer. 

Boosted

Just got my booster vaccination. I now have a dose of Moderna sloshing around my veins. So we’ll see how that interacts with the previous two Oxford-AstraZeneca doses.

Yes, we should be sending all this extra vaccine to poorer countries, because that would be the right thing to do, the moral thing. But even for self-preservation, we should be doing that. Every infected person is a mutation factory, so the fewer infected people there are in the world, the less chance there is of a mutation that’s vaccine-resistant or worse.

That’s self-preservation on a societal scale. But that same sense, at a personal level, lets me say, if they’re offering it here, I’m going to take it.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones (Books 2021, 24)

I read this because I happened on an article about it on Tor.com: ‘Diana Wynne Jones’ The Time of the Ghost Breaks All the Rules of How To Write a Book‘, by Emily Tesh. Let’s ignore the incorrect possessive apostrophe in the title1; it was the assertion about it breaking all the rules that drew me, made me want to read the article. A few paragraphs in I realised that I wanted to read the book, and the article was heading deep into spoiler territory. So I stopped reading it and downloaded the book. Read it as soon as I finished the last one.

It’s the story of four neglected sisters, whose parents run a boys’ boarding school and have no time for anything else, including their daughters; and of a ghost that is haunting them, and who might be one of them. And of an ancient darkness that the sisters accidentally invoked.

But the real darkness is the neglect.

Highly recommended, and the article I linked above is very good and insightful (but deeply spoilerific) too.


  1. Jones is not plural, so it should be Jones’s. 

The Beatles: Get Back, 2021 - ★★★★★

I already wrote about watching the first part, but the whole thing is just as fantastic.

The middle episode does feel like it has some ‘middle volume of a trilogy’ longueurs. It definitely dips a bit. But that reflects the state of the band at the time. They’re trying to bounce back from George walking out and returning, they’ve moved from the Twickenham warehouse to a new studio in their Apple HQ, and they’re rethinking the whole project.

They’re contemplating what it’s all about.

The third part leads up to the famous rooftop live performance, which is glorious, and delightfully presented with split-screen images showing interviews with people in the street below and two bobbies coming in with ‘Thirty complaints about noise.’

I wrote before that this is only for the true fan, but I think the third part would work even if you only have a passing interest.

See in Letterboxd