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100 books, part 1

About three weeks ago, the BBC published a list of “100 Books That Shaped Our World”, comprising titles chosen by a panel “of leading writers, curators and critics”, otherwise known as a radio presenter and literary supplement editor, a broadcaster, three authors and the director of a literary festival. As lists go, it’s a bit, well, establishment, choosing minor titles from contemporary fiction and clonking great bestsellers from genre fiction. A few days later, Nina Allan published a rival list on her blog, and called for others to do the same. Some of my friends have followed her lead.

I like lists. I’ve made no secret of the fact. I’m even responsible for creating one or two that have gone viral, such as the SF Mistressworks list, or the 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women list. So, of course, I decided to have a go myself. But putting together a list of 100 novels which have shaped a person’s reading is hard. Even if you have recorded pretty much everything you’ve read (or, for me, back to the start of the 1990s).

I decided instead to produce an annotated list. And I would organise the list by the decade – one decade per post – during which I encountered the books, giving a sort of history of my reading. While I’d stick to the one book per author “rule”, I wouldn’t limit myself to novels.

It still wasn’t easy. But I managed to put something together. It’s sort of in the order I encountered each book. For the 1970s and 1980s (see next post), it can’t be exact as I didn’t record my reading then. And my recall is good but not that good.

So here is the first installment:

The 1970s

The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970). I don’t actually recall the books I read before the age of eight or nine, but I do have a vivid memory of this one, particularly its illustrations. Until looking up titles for this post I had, however, thought it was by Joan Aiken, who I do recall reading back then – but not which of her titles.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960). This was a British children’s classic for many years and, like many of the books I encountered prior to my eleventh birthday, I read and loved it before understanding what science fiction or fantasy actually were.

Destination Moon, Hergé (1950). I can’t be the only sf fan who was influenced by this when they first read it? Hergé’s star has grown somewhat tarnished in the decades since he died – for the early racist stories, deservedly so – but Destination Moon introduced the iconic rocket that is still recognised the world over today.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972). I’ve no idea why I have such a strong memory of this book – it was the 1974 Pan paperback edition – but I was big on Tarzan around the age of eight or nine or ten. Perhaps because the Tarzan television series starring Ron Ely was a fixture on Dubai’s Channel 33 at the time. I also have a very strong memory of reading a Tarzan annual – I later tracked it down as the 1973 annual – in a hotel in London, probably because it was the day before I had an orthodontic brace fitted and that kind of gets seared into your memory.

The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951). One Christmas in the early 1970s, my parents bought me the Hamlyn Dan Dare 1974 annual, which contained ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’. I loved it. And it made me a lifelong fan of the adventures of Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare. The book was badly damaged by mice or rats while in storage in the 1980s, but I still hung onto it for a couple of decades afterwards.

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965). This is the first of the two novels which, I think, led to me identifying as a science fiction fan. My parents bought it me for Christmas in, I think, 1975. I had seen very few episodes of Doctor Who because I only spent the summers in the UK. For several years after being given this book, my relatives would buy Doctor Who novelisations published by Target as birthday and Christmas presents.

Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953). In my first year at boarding-school – I was eleven – a boy in the same class lent me Starman Jones following a conversation. I had never read category sf before. As soon as I finished it, I wanted more…

Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951) … and, fortunately, there was another boy at the school – in the year below me – who was an actual sf fan, and lent me some of his books, which he kept in his locker. True, it was EE ‘Doc’ Smith and Asimov… I don’t remember if I read the Lensman books in the correct order… but Gray Lensman I recall being the most exciting of the novels. I also loved the Chris Foss cover art on the books.

The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965). The same school had a subscription to Look & Learn, a “weekly educational magazine for children”, which included in each issue some pages from the The Trigan Empire sf comic strip. I also had a copy of the Hamlyn The Trigan Empire omnibus published in 1978, but that must have come a year or two later.

Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952)
Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951)
Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971). These three novels are ones I remember loving during the 1970s. Blish and Simak were also authors I collected then. I no longer read them, although the novels here by them I did reread this century. I’m not entirely sure what I originally saw in them. The Dickson survived an adult reread much better, perhaps because I was more forgiving of its flaws. I still sort of like the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t hold them up as especially good novels. Fortunately, that’s not what this list is about.

Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg (1974). I think I received this as a present. I don’t think the person who bought it knew what it contained, because some of the contents were a bit adult for a twelve year old. The anthology contains one of my favourite sf stories, Philip K Dick’s ‘A Little Something for Us Tempunauts’, and probably the only Harlan Ellison story I’ve ever really liked, ‘Catman’.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1966). I remember at boarding-school seeing another boy reading this and asking him about it. He told me it was good, I eventually got hold of a copy of my own and… well, every thirteen year old boy wants to be Paul Atreides. My opinion of the book has dimmed considerably in the decades since, but I still maintain it is one of the genre’s premier exercises in worldbuilding.

Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977). I should really include all three books of the original Traveller RPG box set, especially since I count a few quartets as a single “book” later in this list. A friend at school had bought Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition (the one in the blue box) and we planned to start up a school RPG society. So I asked for the Traveller basic set – the three Little Black Books in a box – for Christmas… and I’ve been a fan of the game ever since. Its world-building is a bit of a grab-bag, but as a collaborative project that’s been added to for over forty years, it has a depth few other science fiction universes can match.

Next up, the 1980s…


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Travelling down memory lane

I’m not sure what prompted it, but I decided recently to complete my collection of The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, the in-house magazine for the Traveller role-playing game. Back in the 1980s, I’d subscribed to the magazine from issue seven until its demise with issue twenty-four. But in 1986 I’d lent my copies to a friend… and never saw them again. I’d picked up a few replacements here and there, but it had always annoyed me I’d never fully replaced what I’d lost.

So over the past few weeks, I’ve been tracking missing issues on eBay and buying them. I was using a checklist I’d made years ago but I really should have dug out my copies and seen for myself what I was missing. Because it led to this…

Obviously, I’d fallen into the same trap before. Oh well. Having said that, one Traveller supplement I’d always wanted was DGP’s Grand Survey… They’d published three supplements for Traveller in the mid-1980s, and it was the only one I didn’t own. But copies these days go for around $100, which is more than I’m prepared to pay. However, when I took all my Traveller materials down from the bookshelves, I discovered I already had a copy…

I decided I’d better catalogue all my Traveller-related books, so I wouldn’t go buying duplicates. Again. And as I did that, I was reminded how I’d got into role-playing games.

(See what I did with the title of this post now?)

I was first introduced to rpgs in my first year at college – that’s a UK public school, not a US university, so I’d have been thirteen – when a friend showed me this new game he had: Dungeons & Dragons. It was definitely in my first year there, because he showed the game to me in a classroom next to the junior common room; in the second year, four of us Removes in the house were given a study – a singular honour as only fifth formers and above had studies –  and he’d have shown me his D&D in my study had it been that year. Anyway, my friend Andrew de Salis showed me this boxed set of rulebooks he had bought, or received as a present, Basic D&D, the one with the all-blue artwork. I’ve a feeling this happened during the winter term, and it was that Christmas – ie, 1979 – I asked for and received the basic Traveller box set as a present. The following year, I received books 4 and 5, Mercenary and High Guard, as Christmas presents. On the other hand, I might have received the set and the two supplements all at once at Christmas 1980 (High Guard wasn’t published until 1980); but I don’t think so.

Wednesday afternoons at college were given over to “ASH” – Activities, Societies, Hobbies – and not being a sporty type, I’d joined the chess society. But having discovered role-playing games, de Salis and I decided to resurrect the games society. We were given a room near the kitchens. I’ve no idea what the room was originally used for – it was pretty grim, it was tiled and the tiles had been crudely painted over with red paint, it looked out over the courtyard which held the kitchen bins, and it was unheated. There was an old cupboard filled with games from the society’s former incarnation, including a couple of wargames. We were also given a small budget. We never managed to attract more than half a dozen members, and, often as not, we’d be in that room on weekends too, playing games. I remember running a Traveller campaign, mostly written by myself. We also played AD&D, Tunnels & Trolls, RuneQuest, Champions, Star Frontiers, Call of Cthulhu; wargames like Godsfire, Dune, Third Reich, Squad Leader; and boardgames such as Risk and Diplomacy. Oh, and football. We set a chair at either end of the room as goals, and used a small plastic head from some incomplete game we found in the cupboard. It got quite brutal, especially as most people wore cowboy boots at the time, and bruised shins were pretty common.

I began buying Traveller products during the holidays and half-terms when I was at home (or staying with relatives). This meant visiting the Games Workshop shop in the Broadmarsh Centre in Nottingham (yes, they used to sell games by other manufacturers back then). I focused mostly on supplements and adventures – and GDW, Traveller’s publisher, produced plenty of them – but didn’t bother with the more expensive items, such as the Traveller boardgames. I don’t recall buying Traveller products through mail order back then. We both read White Dwarf avidly, which had a regular Traveller column, Starbase, edited by Bob McWilliams (although this may not have appeared in the magazine until a few years later); but the magazine certainly published regular articles and adventures about, and for, Traveller. (Among many other role-playing games, of course.)

It was around this time I started subscribing to The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, as mentioned earlier. Issue seven was published in the latter half of 1980.

I think it was in the Lower VI that de Salis and I decided to try for one of the school’s prizes by publishing a role-playing games fanzine. As far as I remember, the prize only required some project associated with a hobby, invigilated by an outside examiner. We called our fanzine TINNYORO Fanzine (This Is Not Necessarily Your Ordinary Rip-Off Fanzine; it seemed funny in 1983) and sent a copy to White Dwarf for review. I don’t remember if we won the prize. I seem to recall we won some money, chiefly because the White Dwarf reviewer had been kinder than he should have been (the review was not published in the magazine, but sent to us privately, since we’d explained it was a for a school prize). The contents of TINNYORO Fanzine were… mostly rubbish. The artwork, done entirely by myself, was worse. I’m still a little proud of the title of my expanded combat rules for Traveller, “Hit 2 Hurt”. I think we sold about a dozen copies of the zine via mail order. We never produced a second issue.

I left school and spent a year at a college in Nottingham re-taking my A levels. I bought Traveller products from Games Workshop. I scraped good enough grades to get me into Coventry Polytechnic, studying Information Systems Engineering. I joined the poly’s role-playing games society, and once a week we’d spend an evening in a classroom playing a variety of rpgs. I don’t actually remember what we played, although I suspect I had a go at running a self-penned Traveller campaign. (It was a waste of time running the published adventures, as players had usually read them.) At the end of the year, I screwed up my exams and decided to return home and spend a few years working, so I could qualify as an independent student. My Local Education Authority had decided they didn’t need to pay my fees, never mind a grant, because my parents lived abroad – even though my parents owned a house in the UK, paid rates, and lived in the house every summer.

I joined a local gaming group, which met every Sunday in a community centre in Ravenshead. I ran a Traveller campaign, and I remember playing in both a Pendragon and a RuneQuest campaign. One Sunday, two blokes turned up and told us they’d approached the parish council, who owned the community centre, concerned about our “spiritual wellbeing”. Since we played Dungeons & Dragons, we were obviously no different to practicing Satanists. Or maybe not. On the day in question, half of us were playing a WWI dogfighting wargame, with small model aircraft on sticks, which we were moving about on a ping pong table. The concerned parishioners had turned up expecting to find a group of teenagers summoning demons, not a group of twentysomethings – the average age of the group was 25 – playing with tiddly little aeroplanes on sticks. They still got the club banned from using the centre, however. I started at Coventry Polytechnic, soon to be Coventry University, a couple of months later – this time as an independent student, on a full grant – and later heard the club had pretty much disbanded.

During those years back home working for a living, I had two goes at publishing my own Traveller fanzine. The first was titled Imperial Flight (see below), and I produced a full mock-up, with artwork by someone I’d met during  my one year at Coventry Polytechnic, Nigel Dobbs. We lost touch soon after, but I believe he went on to illustrate for 2000 AD. I may have the name slightly wrong. I still have the contents for Imperial Flight #1. It includes a terrible spoof story I’d written set in the Traveller universe about a bunch of incompetents called The Zee-Team. I seem to remember writing a second instalment, but I’ve no idea what happened to it. This is probably a good thing.

Imperial Flight #1 never saw the light of day, and I cannibalised its contents a year or so later for another Traveller fanzine, Signal GK (see above, next to TINNYORO Fanzine). Which was also never published. But at least it didn’t include The Zee-Team. The name Signal GK, the title of an official adventure published by GDW, of course, was later used by another Traveller magazine, but hyphenated as Signal-GK, based in Hebden Bridge, which published thirteen issues between 1991 and 1995.

In 1987, Traveller morphed into MegaTraveller, a redesign of the game driven by DGP, a Traveller licensee who had published the three supplements mentioned earlier, and also published their own Traveller magazine, The Travellers’ Digest. This was originally the same size as GDW’s Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society, but from issue 9 onward was produced at normal magazine size. I began buying it from issue 9. After twenty-one issues, it became The MegaTraveller Journal, which only lasted for four issues.

The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society also ceased around this time, and GDW instead published a normal-sized magazine called Challenge. It continued the numbering scheme from the Journal, and was initially Traveller-only, but soon branched out to feature other GDW games, and rpgs by other companies.

While at university, I’d been buying my Traveller products by mail from a gaming shop in north London – I forget its name – and by this point, they were sending me notices when anything new came out. So I bought each MegaTraveller supplement, and each issue of Challenge, pretty much as it was published.

MegaTraveller became Traveller: The New Era in 1993, and though I didn’t like the new direction I continued to buy the rulebooks and supplements and adventures. GDW closed its doors in 1996, deciding to bow out before it went bust. They’d had problems after taking on Gary Gygax and publishing his Dangerous Journeys rpg, a move that had brought them into conflict with TSR. Collectable Card Games, particularly Magic: The Gathering, had also hit the rpg industry hard. And, of course, Traveller: The New Era had been unpopular with fans.

During my university years, I’d become involved with the History of the Imperium Working Group, HIWG, a transatlantic group of Traveller fans who were keen to produce more material for the game. Although they had a newsletter, Tiffany Star, produced by one of the US members, I don’t believe they actually published anything. Some of the members were associated with the aforementioned Signal-GK. I remember spending a weekend in Hebden Bridge with some of them, but I felt like a bit of a fraud as they were all far more into the game than I was.

Around nine months after graduating from Coventry University, unable to find a job in the UK, I moved to the UAE to start work at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi. I left HIWG and soon lost touch with its members. I also stopped buying Traveller: The New Era products, as it was too expensive to ship them out to the Middle East. I didn’t consider it much of a loss. In the early 1990s, I’d drifted into science fiction fandom, had attended several conventions, published my own fanzine, reviewed books for genre fanzines and small press magazines, and even co-edited a small press genre magazine. I also had ambitions of writing short stories, and saw a couple of them published. I wrote a science fiction novel, Bound by Blood, in 1993, and submitted it to Tor. I never heard back from them. It wasn’t very good.

After the collapse of GDW in 1996, the Traveller licence reverted to the game’s creator, Marc Miller, and, under the name Imperium Games, Miller published a fourth edition of Traveller. The books looked very handsome – they all had Chris Foss cover art – but they were rushed and full of typos. And not very good. I only learnt of the game when I returned to the UK in 2002.

Once back in the UK, it didn’t take me long before I discovered eBay… and all the people selling off the junk in their closets and attics. Including role-playing games. So I set about filling in the gaps in my Traveller collection – those Traveller: The New Era books I’d not bought while I was out in the UAE, the twenty books of the Imperium Games’ edition of Traveller… I also found and bought mint condition copies of classic Traveller supplements and adventures published during the late 1970s and early 1980s, by licensees such as Judges Guild and Group One. They’d probably been sitting in warehouses ever since publication – and with good reason: they were terrible. I bought the Traveller-related boardgames I hadn’t bought back in the 1980s. Some of them were even shrink-wrapped. I even started buying the GURPS Traveller books, published by Steve Jackson Games under licence but using the company’s own GURPS rules…

By this point, there were several different licensed versions of Traveller knocking about. Miller had always been relaxed about licensing, and classic Traveller had been supported by supplements and adventures from a raft of companies, such as DGP, Paranoia Press, Seeker Gaming Systems, Cargonaut Press, FASA, Judges Guild, Gamelords, Group One… Some of these I had bought at the time, mostly those published under licence in the UK by Games Workshop. But those companies had supported GDW’s game; now there were different versions of the game. Traveller 20 was based on a rule system which used only D20s. Miller himself was busy developing a fifth edition of Traveller, initially published only on CD-ROM, then in a ring binder, and finally in a massive hardback book. (I saw a copy of this last recently on eBay for £399.99.) There is a set of starship deck plans, but no adventures or supplements have to date been published for Traveller5.

A British company, Mongoose, created their own version of Traveller, based on a different rules system. They published a series of rulebooks, similar in design to GDW’s original Traveller, plus a range of adventures and supplements under the title The Third Imperium. In 2016, Mongoose published a second edition of their version of Traveller. Which is where I sort of came back into the game. Mongoose ran a couple of Kickstarter campaigns for new Traveller material, and I stumbled across mention of one. It was a box set titled The Great Rift, and it looked like it would be a quality piece of work. They wanted £10,000. They received £113,782 in pledges! The average pledge must have been about £100. It is indeed a very impressive box set. Mongoose followed up with another Kickstarter, the Element Class Cruiser box set, which managed £43,749 of a £10,000 target… It’s due some time this month or next.

Some time during all this, there was an attempt to create a setting in the Traveller universe a couple of centuries after the published setting, called Traveller 1248. I’ve seen copies of the two sourcebooks published for on eBay for £79.95. Fortunately, I bought my copies when they were published, for the much more affordable price of £15 each.

There are still gaps in my Traveller collection – the classic version, that is; I’m not overly bothered about the post-GDW versions of the game – and my collection of Traveller-related magazines. Early issues of The Journal of the Travellers’ Aid Society and The Travellers’ Digest are extremely rare and correspondingly expensive. It’s unlikely I’ll ever manage a full run of either magazine. My copies of High Passage’s five issues, and both issues of Far Traveller, Traveller magazines published by a licensee called FASA, some I bought back in the 1980s and the rest more than a decade ago. Which is fortunate as copies now vary from $20 to $60 each.

The game was also supported during the 1980s by a number of fanzines. I have all eight issues of a UK-based one, Alien Star. I even contributed to one of the early issues. And back in 1984, myself and de Salis travelled to London to attend a Games Day, and met up with one of Alien Star’s editors. But most of the fanzines were, of course, from the US, and hard to source at the time – and there was no easy way to pay overseas sellers back then. I’ve picked up a few issues here and there during the past decade or so, but fanzines are harder to find than official supplements by licensed games companies. And, to be honest, their contents were never up to much… although probably better than the contents of the two Traveller zines I put together, and almost certainly better than the contents of TINNYORO Fanzine.


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Reading diary, #34

I stuck to my plan to read only non-fiction in July, but unfortunately I’d not considered one consequence: it usually takes longer to read non-fiction than fiction. So I’ve still not finished The Third Reich: A New History, I’m only three-quarters of the way through The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, and I barely got started on Imagination/Space. However… I did manage to sneak in a few fiction books…

visitationVisitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). Erpenbeck’s The End of Days was the best book I read during the first half of this year, and is likely set to take the top spot come December… which I guess implies that I didn’t think Visitation as good. And, well, fair enough, it’s not as good as The End of Days… but it’s still an excellent novel. It’s written in a similar distanced sort of present tense without direct speech or speech tags. It’s also similarly episodic, although rather than the episodes being based around a person they’re based around a place. Which, in this case, is a patch of land beside a lake in what became East Germany. The story opens in the late nineteenth century (and it really does have a The White Ribbon atmosphere), when the land was covered by a wood. But the owner is forced to sell it after the First World War, and a succession of holiday homes are built on it. There’s some continuity in the form of the “Gardener”, a man who lived in the wood and who never speaks in the novel. At one point, the holiday home is owned by a Jewish family, but is then seized by the Nazis. It comes into the hands of a professional couple from East Berlin, and an old woman who has returned home after several decades living and working in Moscow… The land endures; the people, and the systems they create, do not. Erpenbeck is definitely my discovery of the year, and if Visitation doesn’t quite have the breadth or audacity of The End of Days, it’s likely only because it’s a much thinner book, little more than novella length. But in its approach to its material, it certainly presages The End of Days, although it runs as serial history rather than parallel or alternate history. I can’t recommend Erpenbeck enough. She has one more book available in English. I will be buying it and reading it before the year is out.

hangmanTor double 21: Home is the Hangman / We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, Roger Zelazny / Samuel R Delany (1968/1975). A bunch of these Tor doubles appeared in the Isam Bookshop in Abu Dhabi back in the 1990s when I lived in the city. They’d obviously been remaindered as that was all the shop sold: remaindered books from the US and UK. (A colleague I ran into once in the shop told me in all seriousness that the books had been “rejected because they contain spelling mistakes”.) Every now and again, when I can find copies, I add to my collection. Tor published 36 doubles in total between 1989 and 1991; some, like this one, are a pair of older reprints, some an older work and a newer one (which was often a sequel or prequel by another hand to the earlier work). The two stories in this double, however, are completely unrelated – if there’s a thematic link, I missed it. According to the cover of Home is the Hangman, “He’s back from the stars – and he isn’t happy”, which tells you two things about the title character and manages to get both wrong. A nine-word blurb that is 100% wrong. Quite an achievement. The novella is narrated by a private investigator / security specialist type, who manages to live under the radar because he was a programmer on a project to computerise everyone’s personal details and ensured his own data was not recorded (this may have seemed like a plausible idea in 1968, but in 2016 it makes no sense). This, however, adds almost nothing to the story… which is about an AI which had been built to explore the moons of the outer planets, and has now returned to Earth for reasons unknown. Four people had been involved in “training” the AI and now, a couple of decades later, one runs a store, one is a psychiatrist, one is an engineer and one is a wealthy industrialist. The store-owner is brutally killed and the industrialist thinks the AI was responsible because of something horrible that happened in the past. Think Original Sin. This novella won the Hugo and Nebula and came second in the Locus Award. Zelazny is a well-known name, and a famous genre prose stylist… so I was surprised at how rubbish this was. The prose was bland, the plot obvious, and time had has not been kind to the world-building… But turn the book upside down and flip it about and you get… We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line, which is a pure hit of the pure Delany… and yes, it’s dated quite a bit but it doesn’t matter because with Delany it’s always the late 1960s/early 1970s… and yes, the central premise – giant crawler factories which lay electricity cable, free of charge, to every household on the globe – is bizarrely old-fashioned and weird for 1975… But but but. There are Hells Angels living in an abandoned house in the mountains, and they ride flying bikes. And when one of the crawling factories offers to lay cable to the house (what was wrong with the original utilities infrastructure? Delany never tells us), it breaks apart the biker gang. It’s pretty much nonsense from start to finish but it’s also what a real prose stylist looks like. Reading these two novellas is a bit like reading some sort of writing match between a pair of big names from the late 1960s. Delany wins hands-down, no doubt there; especially since Delany’s novella reads like a product of its time but the Zelazny reads like a story that could have been written at any time but does a piss-poor job of its world-building. So, Delany 1 – Zelazny 0.

agentAgent of the Imperium, Marc Miller (2015). The Traveller RPG was first published in 1977, and has been through several incarnations in the decades since. And during those years, there have been a handful of tie-in novels published – two by the game’s original publishers, GDW; one by a major imprint; but most by fans. Miller was the inventor of the game, and has been seen as its authority ever since – much as Gary Gygax was for Dungeons & Dragons – but until Agent of the Imperium, Miller had never published fiction (unlike Gygax). Agent of the Imperium was published by Miller’s company, Far Future Enterprises, but was financed via Kickstarter. Despite not think highly of other Traveller novels I’ve read, I decided it might be worth reading Miller’s go at one. And… there’s some interesting ideas in the novel, and the way it covers so much of the Third Imperium’s history is cleverly done… But it reads like a series of unconnected episodes, which eventually lead up to the seizing of the Iriridum Throne by Arbellatra, the founder of the Alkhalikoi dynasty (which was still in power five hundred or so years later, at the time the setting of Traveller “began”). The narrator of the novel is the agent of the title, and he works for the Imperial Quarantine Agency, which is charged with preventing epidemics on individual worlds from spreading across the Imperium. Of course, it takes something especially virulent to put the Imperium in danger, and the opening incident describes a world where a species of parasite has taken mental control of the population. The Agent, however, is not a real person. He was a high-level bureaucrat during the early years of the Imperium, but his personality was encoded on a wafer (a fatal process), and now, in certain circumstances, the commanders of Imperial Navy vessels or fleets are instructed to insert a copy of the wafer into a suitable officer equipped with a jack, and so invoke the Agent, who can then advise on the situation. These situations usually result in the Agent advising the fleet to destroy the world. After several such incidents, the Agent (there is a system in place to keep his memories updated and in synch) assists Arbellatra onto the Iridium Throne. I’m a big fan of Traveller and the universe its designers have created and yes, it’s a good playground for fiction… But most of the fiction set in the universe has never quite managed to grasp the flavour of it. Unsurprisingly, Miller manages that really well – despite throwing in virtual personalities and wafers and jacks, none of which, as far as I remember, appeared in any of the incarnations of the RPG. However… Miller is no prose stylist; in fact, he makes Asimov look like a prose stylist. This is commercial sf prose stripped down to its most basic, and the best that can be said of it is that it’s serviceable (although an editor should have spotted that “flang” is not the past tense of “fling”). The story is also far too episodic, and the links between the episodes too minor, to give the whole a feeling of a plot. Fans of the RPG will enjoy it – because it’s by Miller, because it’s set in the RPG’s universe – but if it had been a non-Traveller work it would be a poor one.

Vendetta, MS Murdock (1987). I stumbled across this at Fantastika 2016 in Stockholm, looked it up online and decided it was eligible for review on SF Mistressworks. Which I have now done. It wasn’t… very good. See here.

coming_up_for airComing Up for Air, George Orwell (1939). George Bowling is in his forties, fat, works as in insurance inspector for the Flying Salamander, and ives in the suburbs with a wife and two kids. He is, in pretty much every respect, an ordinary lower-middle-class Londoner of the thirties. He wasn’t always, of course. He was born and grew up in a small Thames Valley village, the son of a seed merchant whose business is failing. He leaves school early and goes to work for a local grocer. And then war is declared, and George signs up. He finishes the war as a commissioned officer, which is enough to lift his ambitions above a grocer’s shop. He is, he admits, one of many men who survived the Great War and whose experiences were enough to lift them from working class to the lower rungs of middle class. All this is told to the reader by George in evocative and surprisingly chatty prose – his childhood in Lower Binfield, his aspirations, his current mid-life crisis… And it’s the latter which persuades him to return to Lower Binfield for a visit after twenty-five years away. Naturally, what he finds is not the bucolic village of the turn of the century that he remembers. I took this book with me to Bloodstock, something to read when I needed an occasional time-out from the metal and the beer, and when I started it I wondered if I’d picked a wrong ‘un. The only Orwell I’d read previously was Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, his two most famous works – and Coming Up for Air‘s chatty first-person narrative is nothing like those. But the more I read, the more I found myself fascinated by George Bowling and his life. Orwell paints a picture of a life that is as foreign to me because of the time it’s set as it is because Bowling grew up in a small agricultural village in southern England (ie, not the industrial north). I enjoyed Coming Up for Air a lot more than I’d expected to, and found it a much better book than I’d anticipated. Worth reading.

FIGURESThe Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, Jeremi Szaniawski (2014). Though I’ve been subscribing to Sight & Sound for nearly two decades, I’ve never read any actual academic film criticism. Until now. But I’m a huge a fan of Sokurov’s films, and I felt I needed a little help to parse some of them. And Figures of Paradox has been very useful in that regard, but… The language used throughout is that sort of obfuscatory academic bollocks that gives academic criticism a bad name. Having said that, Szaniawski knows his subject well, and there is plenty of information about the production of Sokurov’s films which I found both fascinating and helpful in deciphering them. However, the more I read the book, the more it becamse clear that Szaniawski had A Theory, and he was determined to prove it. There is, it cannot be denied, a certain amount of homoeroticism in Sokurov’s films, and Sokurov himself is famously celibate. Although Sokurov has denied being gay, Szaniawski is convinced he is, and the evidence for it is there in his films. I can see in part what Szaniawski claims, but there’s as much evidence in Sokurov’s filmography to “prove” he is gay as there was in Ken Russell’s – and Russell wasn’t gay. Not, of course, that it makes the slight bit of difference. It just seems a peculiar drum to bang. Reading the book, I put it down to an academic’s need to add some new angle to justify their research. (Szaniawski’s book is not the only critical work on Sokurov, but the others are all spread across a variety of magazines.) In all, I found Figures of Paradox something of a curate’s egg – a useful work in helping to parse Sokurov’s films, and better appreciate them; but it also displayed some of the worst aspects of academic film criticism. But Sokurov is still an amazing director, though.


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Great wall o’ books

June was a negative month inasmuch as I ended up buying more books than I read, so the TBR increased in size. Oh well. Mostly this was due to Fantastika 2016, which had an excellent book room… but a few books I wanted also popped up during the month on eBay and so I bought them. Having recently discovered there are books I’d like to read but didn’t bother buying when they were published a few years ago, and copies are now £150+… Well, it makes sense to buy a book the moment a copy comes available at a decent price. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

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Both Surviving and Blindness are first editions by Henry Green I found on eBay. Unfortunately, Surviving is a bit too tatty (well, it was very cheap) and Blindness was misrepresented as a first edition, but it’s a first edition of the 1977 reprint. Agent of the Imperium, on the other hand, is the first Traveller novel written by the game’s inventor, Marc Miller. I backed it on kickstarter and they’ve done a really nice job of it.

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Mindsong, The Legacy of Lehr, GodheadsVendetta, Don’t Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine I bought from the Alvarfonden at Fantastika 2016 to review on SF Mistressworks.

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David Tallerman gave me a copy of his new collection The Sign in the Moonlight in a swap for a copy of my Dreams of the Space Age. Arcadia is the only novel on the Clarke Award shortlist I’ve not read – I was waiting for the paperback. The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo last year against all odds and I’ve wanted to read it since first hearing of it. I loved Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days so I’m keen to explore of her fiction, hence Visitation. I’ve no idea why I still read McEwan, but after finding The Children Act in a charity shop I now have his last three on the TBR.

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I do like me some books of photos of abandoned Cold War equipment and places, hence Restricted Areas. And Adam Roberts’s Science Fiction I found cheap at the abovementioned Alvarfonden. The Battlecruiser Hood is one of the Anatomy of the Ship books I didn’t have – found this copy going for a good price on eBay.