The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Books 2022, 19)

The last of the Culture books and Banksie’s SF books, both at all, and that I had only read once.

The odd one about this, as a Culture book, I realised only very late on, is that neither Special Circumstances nor even Contact are involved, directly. Just a random grouping of ships who take an interest in the matter.

The matter in question being the decision of a species called the Gzilt to sublime, or leave the material realm for higher dimensions. This a common endpoint (or new beginning) for civilisations in the Culture universe, and I wonder whether, had Iain lived, he would have taken us to the point where The Culture itself was making that decision.

Anyway, the sonata in question is one that is barely playable because it was written for ‘an instrument not yet invented’, which turns out to be be the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, or Elevenstring. An instrument with some 24 strings (some not counted in the name, because they are not played, they just resonate) designed to be played with two bows simultaneously.

Our hero — or at least, the main humanoid viewpoint character — Vyr Cossont, has been surgically adapted to have an extra pair of arms to allow her to play it. It is still next to impossible, but she has made it her ‘life task’: something to do while waiting for the day when your civilisation sublimes. The decision for them to go was made long before she was born.

But her playing the sonata is only a side issue. The real problem is that maybe someone is trying to sabotage the sublimation. Or maybe not, but odd things are afoot, and various people and ships get involved, and it’s all a whole shitload of fun.


The Computer Connection by Alfred Bester (Books 2022, 16)

This starts out with the main character escaping from some obscure threat and reaching a friend’s place. The friend sends him into the past — so you think it’s going to be a time-travel story. In the past he tries to save a struggling artist by giving him gold.

And that’s the last we hear of time travel. It’s actually a story of humans who have attained bodily immortality through various traumatic incidents, and things going on with them. There’s some space travel, and, not surprisingly given the tite, a computer connection.

It’s pretty strange in the way that Bester can be. Not one of his best, but interesting enough. Harlan Ellison praises it — and Bester — highly in the introduction.

I had one of those, ‘Have I read this before?’ experiences through the first few chapters, but it soon stopped. So I wonder if I started it once before. If so, I don’t know why I’d have stopped, as it kept me going this time.


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?


Our Last, Best, Hope for TV?

You wait years for a beloved three-letter-creator to return to a beloved SF show, and then two happen in one week. After the news of RTD returning to Doctor Who, we have… JMS returning to – and rebooting – Babylon 5?

I did not see that coming. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. Babylon 5was among my favourite programmes of the nineties. It was groundbreaking, in that it was probably the first such show to be planned from the start as a single long (five year) story. With many sub-stories and side plots along the way, as you might imagine.

It was, of course, flawed, especially in the rushed completion of season 4. They thought they were going to be cancelled, so JMS tried to tie up most of the loose ends in that season. Then season 5 was saved, and ended up being slow and underpowered by comparison.

For this proposed reboot – it’s TV, so nothing is definite till it’s in the can – he says he will ‘not be retelling the same story in the same way because of what Heraclitus said about the river’, but that ‘this is a reboot from the ground up rather than a continuation’.

If anyone else was running it, you could count me out. Straczynski could make it great again, but I sort of wonder why he wants to. Not unlike my wondering about why RTD wants to return to Who. I suppose we’re never entirely satisfied with our creations, so getting the opportunity to go back and rework them can be tempting. But I’m not sure it’s always healthy.

Still, we live in hope.


Big Planet by Jack Vance (Books 2021, 16)

I actually read this before the previous one, but forget to write about it. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Jack Vance is considered one of the greats of SF, and I realised recently that I hadn’t read anything by him. And I had this big volume that Gollancz gave away at a convention some time, containing this and two other books (another novel and a collection of short stories). A sort of literary compilation album.

But not a Greatest Hits — or if it is, then things are pretty bad.

The main problem is that it’s dated. Usually we can work around that sort of thing, and I did — look at me, all finished with it — but the main thing here is that it’s just badly written. Cardboard characters, dodgy sexual politics, and a plot that, while interesting enough to get me through it, is far too easily resolved.

And there’s the background of an Earth empire or federation or similar, that we see essentially notthing of. Instead the action is all confined to the eponymous planet. It ‘revolutionised the planetary romance,’ according to the blurb. And, indeed it was important to the form according to the linked SF Encyclopedia entry.

So much for that. All I can say is, it didn’t do a lot for me.


London Centric: Tales of Future London, Edited by Ian Whates (Books 2021, 14)

Great collection of stories set in and around London. Or various Londons, depending on how you look at it.

Standouts for me were the opening story, ‘Skin,’ by Neal Asher, and ‘War Crimes’ by MR Carey, but there’s a lot to enjoy here, and not one bad one.

It’s good to know the science fiction short story is in a good state, despite what I said about it… err, seven years ago.


Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Books 2020, 24)

I wasn’t quite sure about this at first. I know it won awards and all that. It was assigned for the ‘Genre’ module of my Creative Writing masters,1 but it didn’t immediately grab me.

But I came round to it. It’s set in the very far future, because there are examples of technology that is old, but people don’t understand it. Reminiscent of Viriconium or Against A Dark Background in that way. And ‘Home is the pink one’ – star – suggests that Sol has got very old. Like, billions of years older than now. Which feels wrong, because humans should have changed a lot more in that time.

The titular character is the first of her people to leave Earth (we assume it’s Earth, anyway) to go to Oomza University, which appears to be a whole planet that’s a university, and takes people from many different species and civilisations.

Things happen on the way, as you might expect. It’s good, and I’m keen to read the sequels.


  1. As such it’s an odd choice: for the crime and historical fiction we got long novels, and even for YA it’s a full-length novel. But for SF: a novella. ↩︎


On Devs

Just watched the last episode of Devs. Several friends recommended it after I said “What shall we watch next?" a few weeks ago. The question was intended rhetorically, but they gave answers anyway, which was nice.

In terms of its pacing, Devs was likened to Kubrick. Fair enough. I saw some Lynchian overtones in it. Or sub-Lynchian, anyway. I enjoyed the journey, but was slightly disappointed with the destination.

Not, however, as disappointed as I feared I was going to be halfway through the last episode. I practically cheered when Lily threw the gun away. But then poetry-quoting Stewart fucked everything up.

Of course, as soon as you (the programme maker) introduce simulations, you (the viewer) can no longer trust that anything is “real,” so everything gets slippery and to some extent, what’s the point?

Where it disappoints, I think, is that Forest’s incorrect determinism-based view was not actually overturned by the ending. We don’t see him and Lily living in an alternative branch of the multiverse, but in a simulation that could be entirely consistent with his belief that reality proceeds on tram tracks – thereby obviating the guilt he feels for contributing to his wife and child’s death, and also getting him off the hook in his mind for his complicity with his murderous ex-CIA security chief.

I found the first episode quite disturbing: the music was screechingly discordant and set my teeth on edge, and that creepy statue towered over everything. And the fact that the statue was still there, still creepy, at the end was confusing. Surely he’d only had it built because his daughter died? But in the sim where his daughter survived, it was still there and the company was still named after her. Only Devs (or Deus) the project was missing. Which suggests that he had named the company and had the statue built, not as a commemoration of his daughter, but because – I don’t know, really.

The other weird thing about the first episode was that, not having seen the cast, I spent the first ten minutes saying, “Is that Ron Swanson?” The fact that one of the first things he says was a complaint about government regulation feels like a clue. Nick Offerman does an impressive job of disappearing into the part, but he couldn’t hide his voice.

Still, I’ll never be able to watch Parks & Rec in the same way.

Also Katie, when explaining Devs to Lily, uses “reason” when she means “cause.” Her pushing the pen is the cause of it rolling across the table. The reason it happened is because she chose to push it. Reason (to me, at least) implies intelligence or at least sentience behind the action. Cause is the correct word to use when discussing cause and effect.

And when she asked Lily to name a truly random event, Lily should have said, “Nuclear decay.”


2020: An Isolation Odyssey

You should watch this. It’s only short. Indeed, only as short as the last section and closing credits of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And do watch the credits. You’ll learn the name Lydia Cambron.

2020: An Isolation Odyssey from Lydia Cambron on Vimeo.

And you know what? It’s nice that a video is not on YouTube for once. I always somehow preferred Vimeo anyway.


Surface Detail by Iain M Banks (Books 2020, 18)

The second-last Culture book, and a long-delayed return to Mr Banks. This book is ten years old, and I didn’t write about it in 2010. Not sure why, but I didn’t post much in 2010.

Anyway, this is pure dead brilliant. Even better than I remembered – and I, as is common, remembered surprisingly little.

But you don’t need me to tell you about it. It’s a Culture book. Just read the damn thing.


The Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert A Heinlein (Books 2020, 11)

A set of linked short stories, this, all part of Heinlein’s Future History. In these days of companies launching rockets to the International Space Station, the title story seems slightly relevant. In it, businessman DD Harriman attempts to launch the first mission to the moon – it was written in the 40s, long before Apollo.

They’re all decent enough stories. But we are in a very masculine world. The dodgy sexual politics of the last one are largely ignored by the almost complete absence of women. Except in ‘Let There Be Light,’ in which a women is effectively co-inventor of solar power panels.

Heinlein’s writing of women characters is generally considered to be poor, and I’m sure that’s true. But it’s interesting to think how he developed from these early stories to the later novels, where at least there are women, and they are major characters.


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.


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. ↩︎


The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (Books 2020, 2)

Translated by Stephen Snyder. I asked for this for Christmas, because I saw it reviewed in The Guardian and it sounded interesting. And it is, but I had some problems with it.

Let’s look at the blurb:

Hat ribbon, bird, rose.

To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed.

When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

That “[f]or some reason” is where this book doesn’t quite work for me. The setup is fine: a type of item, and the memories, the very idea of that item, disappears. The titular police make sure that all instances of the item — roses, hats, photographs… — are removed. But some people keep their memories and the ideas, and try to keep the things. The Memory Police find them and cart them off.

The protagonist’s mother was taken in that way when the protagonist was small.1

Why is it happening? How is it happening? Who are the Memory Police, and what happens to the people they take? Can they be resisted, and how can the islanders get their memories back? These are the sorts of questions you would expect to have answered, were this a science fiction novel. Are the islanders the victims of some sort of mind-control experiment? Are they in a simulation?

This is not a science fiction novel.

“For some reason”. Don’t read this expecting to find out what the reason is, or to get answers to any of the other questions.

All that said, I enjoyed reading it. The sense of danger, of menace, is palpable, but subtle. It’s about people trying to live their lives under these bizarre conditions. It’s just frustrating thinking about it now, about the unanswered questions.

But maybe I’m reading it wrong. In her essay “SF reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:

A reviewer wanted to make the zombies in Kelly Link’s “Zombie Contingency Plans” (in the collection Magic For Beginners) into metaphors. They’re not. They’re actual zombies. They may also be metaphors, but their metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that they’re actual zombies that want to eat your brains. Science fiction may be literalization of metaphor, it may be open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings, but what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.

The essay is largely about how there is a “toolkit” for reading SF — a set of understandings, of tropes — without which some can find the genre difficult to understand. We learn that toolkit, or build it, from early reading of the genre. But she follows the above quote with this:

When I read literary fiction, I take the story as real on the surface first, and worry about metaphors and representation later, if at all. It’s possible that I may not be getting as much as I can from literary fiction by this method, in the same way that the people who want the zombies and dragons to be metaphorical aren’t getting as much as they could.

Maybe that’s what went wrong for me with The Memory Police: Ogawa wrote a metaphorical work — about people trying to live their lives under bizarre conditions, as I wrote above. I read it with the expectation that the bizarre conditions would have an explanation, and they don’t, because they are “only” metaphors.

For, I would have to suppose, a totalitarian state, where the slightest infraction of arcane and obscure laws leads to being carted away by the secret police.

We also get sections of the novel the protagonist is writing. It is about a woman who loses her voice, and communicates using a typewriter. Then the typewriter is taken away from her. It works as a metaphor for the situation the protagonist lives in: a metaphor within a metaphor.

And from the Guardian review that started this:

Why this is happening is unknown; the ideology of totalitarian control and cultural isolation is implied, rather than explicitly outlined, and its intersection with the supernatural strengthens the feeling of allegory.

So maybe I should have been warned. Calling it “supernatural” suggests something more in the magic realism vein. That might be a better way to approach it. Magic needs — or at least, generally gets — less of an explanation.


  1. Note the lack of names, too: the editor is given an initial, R, but the only character given an actual name is a dog. 

Who, Yes!

After my highly negative assessment of episode 3 (“the worst episode of Doctor Who ever“), episode 4, “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror,” was fine, if forgettable.

And then last Sunday, we got — wait…

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen episode 5, “Fugitive of the Judoon.”

OK. Last Sunday we got “Fugitive of the Judoon.” Which is without doubt the best episode of Chibnall’s time as showrunner, so far. And may well be the most important episode since the programme came back in 2005. Or at least, be the start of the farthest-reaching changes since Russell T Davies brought us the concept of the Time War.

Two genuinely surprising reveals! Jack’s back; and… so is The Doctor? Whaaaattt???!!?

Fandom is, of course, rife with speculation as to where Jo Martin’s Doctor falls in The Doctor’s timeline. Future? Past? Or an alternative universe? And what of this “Lone Cyberman”?

Halfway through this, season, and it’s shaping up to be something very special. I just hope they don’t let us down.


Transition by Iain Banks (Books 2019, 25)

This post was written in the new year, but the book was read in the old, and accordingly backdated.

This is a strong as it was ten years ago when I first read it, but still has the same narrative flaw. That’s not surprising, but the flaw in the universe-hopping detail is so jarring that I read it half-hoping to pick up on something that I had missed the last time.

It was not to be. Our heroes and villains still hop to uninhabited Earths, and yet find a body there to receive them.

And of course, the ethical question of possessing another human being remains barely addressed.

All that said, though, it’s still a great read.


OA Going Away

I just discovered via a conversation on Micro.blog, that Netflix have cancelled The OA.

This is very disappointing. The OA was an incredible, confusing, glorious piece of work, and Brit Marling, its co-creator, has assured us that it all has a plan and an ending.

Now (or back in August, anyway) she’s had to write its obituary. I suppose some other company might pick it up, but since it’s mostly Netflix who do that these days, it seems unlikely.

Presumably the two completed seasons, 16 episodes in total, will remain on Netflix. I‘d still recommend watching them. Just remember that you’ll be left somewhere strange.


Watchmen on TV

I succumbed. As I suggested I might.

It felt a little grubby, going to the NowTV site and setting up an account. As you know, Sky TV and I have a history. Or maybe an anti-history, insofar as I am anti everything that their former owner stands for. But the key word is “former.” With Comcast now owning it, I can feel a little better about giving them my time and possibly some money.

Still, though: grubby.

But what’s worse, as a viewing experience, is that their app is the worst video-playback app I’ve ever used. It’s fine at all the basics; it even has a ten-second jump back and forward feature, which is good. But! It completely fails at subtitles.

Now, in this era — this platinum age of television — subtitles are often an essential part of viewing. And that isn’t true just due to my age, because my kids, who are young adults, are at least as likely as us olds to want them on. Mumblecore actors are to blame. Or maybe bad sound on our TV. Or a combination. Doesn’t matter. We watch with subtitles on a lot of the time, and I wanted them on for Watchmen.

But NowTV — in its Mac app, at least — just can’t handle them properly. They either freeze, so you get the same sentence stuck on the screen for five minutes; or they just get out of sync. Sometimes they rush through minutes of text at a time, as if trying to catch up. In the end I turned them off.

But I watched one episode on my iPad, and the subtitles were fine there. So I guess it is the actual Mac app. The Mac plugged into the telly is an old one. A nine-year-old MacBook Pro, in fact. I’m impressed that it’s still working, though I did upgrade it at one point.

Anyway, that can’t be the reason it’s bad, because I’ve also tried it on my 2017 MBP, with exactly the same results.

But what about the programme?

It’s a sequel to the comic, set around thirty years later. I found the first episode kind of annoying, though I’m not quite sure why. Too much of it set in the past, maybe? But as we’ve got to know the characters and things have moved along, it’s definitely interesting. I’ve watched the first five episodes so far. Up to which point it’s kind of a cop show with an unusual background. Cops go masked so that criminals can’t identify them. Criminals go masked too, of course, specifically in Rorscach-style black and white masks.

And there’s a mysterious old guy who puts on plays reenacting the origin of Doctor Manhattan. You’ll have guesses about who he is, if you know the source material. Well, one guess.

I like the way they’ve built on the comic, and are weaving the backstory in. Though I think it must be extremely confusing for anyone who hasn’t read the novel, or at least seen the movie.

My main question (apart from the obvious ones, like what’s going on with Veidt?) is: why is Laurie using her father’s surname? It doesn’t make sense to me that she’d call herself Blake, instead of Juspeczyck.

Oh, and whatever happened to Dan Dreiberg? I want to see some Nite owl action. Something that looked a lot like the Owlship appeared in the first episode, so maybe he’ll turn up. As, I imagine, will Doctor Manhattan.


His Dark Materials on TV

Minor spoilers ahead.

I am loving what they’re doing with HDM1 in the BBC/HBO adaptation. It has just enough variation from the books to keep it interesting (especially since I re-read them recently). Yet it manages not to distort the story in the way that so upset my then-ten-year-old son in the film version of (part of) the first book.

Bringing in the scenes of Lord Boreal crossing to “our” Oxford, and finding out about who Grumman is, is inspired. It will have the effect of making more sense of the inciting incident for Will, when he turns up. In the book it was never entirely clear who the people who searched his house were sent by, and why the authorities were interested in him. This way, it will.

I’m looking forward to next week’s arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby.2 And we’ll get Iorek Byrnison, too. That’ll be a big test of the CGI.

Which leads me to the only thing that slightly lets it down: Pantalaimon’s default form as an ermine. It looks a little too fake and plasticky to me. Most of the other daemons look fine, so I don’t know why the lead one should be so poor. Maybe it’s because he’s the only one that gets much screen time where he talks.

On that note, two points about Mrs Coulter’s daemon, one which struck me on my recent reread, and the other just tonight. We never learn its name. Nearly every other daemon that gets a mention, gets a name. And it never speaks. Certainly not so far in the TV version, and I’m fairly sure it never does in the books, either.

Which no doubt tells us something about the character of the woman.


  1. As I imagine no-one calls it. 
  2. Pity it isn’t a singing part. 

Watchmen by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (Books 2019, 21)

I like to reread this from time to time, and right now I’m considering watching the TV version that’s currently on. It’s HBO, which means Sky over here, which would traditionally have ruled it out on ethical grounds. But times and corporate ownerships have changed. The Murdochs no longer own Sky TV, so I can let myself watch it.

But then we have the other ethical question, about Watchmen in particular. Which is to say, since Alan Moore feels that he was cheated by DC over the ownership of the creative work, and repudiates all derivative works, shouldn’t we avoid them too? I saw the movie version, but I didn’t get the Before Watchmen spin-offs.

Well, it’s been a long time; Moore and Gibbons must have known what they were signing up for, even if things didn’t go quite as they expected. I recall seeing Moore at a convention in Glasgow in 1985 or 86, where he said, “DC are utter vermin.” Yet he went on to work with them often after that.

Plus, I’m already reading Doomsday Clock, which brings the Watchmen universe into the DC multiverse, so personally, that ship has sailed.

How does the story stand up today? It’s still excellent, I would say. With the obvious weakness of the ending. Though thinking about that, what’s weak is how preposterous Veidt’s plan is. Accepting that, that part of the story is well executed.

It’s still one of my favourite comics.


Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Books 2019, 9)

Nigeria, 2066 (and various years before that). Our hero, Kaaro, is a sensitive. An alien entity sits in a dome at the heart of the city of Rosewater, and many strange things happen.

The start of a trilogy, and I'll be getting the sequels, you can be sure. Top stuff.


Who's Who?

Right, let’s get 2019 off to a start by talking about my favourite TV programme. I haven’t said anything about the recent season of Doctor Who here since my appreciative post at the end of the first episode. Not for any reason other than not getting round to it.

I absolutely love this iteration of the series. Jodie Whittaker is fantastic as The Doctor, and the supporting cast is brilliant as well. I like the crowded Tardis feel. It does have the limitation that some of the characters don’t get as much time or as many lines as others. That’s been notably true of Yaz — except in the “Demons of the Punjab” episode, of course.

But there’s plenty of time for her to be developed further, assuming they’re all sticking around. And the focus being more on Ryan and Graham was entirely correct, since if there was an overarching theme to the season, it was grief.

It’s not perfect. There have been several occasions when I’ve thought that the writing team don’t really understand what a galaxy is, or the scale of it. Lines like “half the people in the galaxy are unemployed,” or “they’ve crossed four galaxies to get here,” just don’t really make a lot of sense. And there have been several episodes where things maybe weren’t as tidily resolved as we’re used to.

Tonight’s New Year special episode, “Resolution,” was a classic example of the kind of story where the ideas are good, but the whole thing could have been improved if they’d taken the time to come up with slightly better ways to make things happen. Some way of defeating the enemy that didn’t involve the microwave oven, for example. And the whole vacuum/supernova bit at the end was kind of farcical.

But no matter. This season was all about the character dynamics, and those were great. It’s a strong start for Chris Chibnall as showrunner, and an incredibly strong start for Jodie Whittaker.


Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith (Books 2018, 28)

I think I’ve read this twice before, but as ever, my memories of it are not strong enough to support that thought. Doesn’t really matter. I read it years back and loved it. When I started it this time, at first I wasn’t so sure. It felt like it wasn’t living up to my memories. Maybe I was reading it for the wrong reasons.

But there can be no wrong reason to read a book. Just sometimes you’ve got to be in the right mood for a particular one; or it needs to be the right book for you at that time.

Luckily reading changes us. So we might be in the wrong mood at first, but the book brings us around. That’s what happened this time.

I wish MMS would go back to writing SF. I suppose his crime/horror fiction as Michael Marshall (the second-most transparent pseudonym in literary history) is more lucrative — and to be fair, maybe he enjoys it more, or just as much. But god, it feels like a loss to SF.

Anyway, this was a mighty debut, but thinking about it now, it’s actually more like magical realism than SF. There’s no attempt to explain Jeamland or how the narrator and others get to it.

“I can send you a postcard, but you can’t come to stay.”

“Everything you’ve done, everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve become, remains. You never can go back, only forward, and if you don’t bring the whole of yourself with you, you’ll never see the sun again.”


The nation hods its breath: five minutes till the new series of Doctor Who starts.